BALTIMORE (AP) — As his teammates celebrated their AL East championship last week, Baltimore outfielder Austin Hays took a moment to reflect on the Orioles’ journey from 110-loss doormat to top seed in the American League playoffs.
“It’s as satisfying as it could ever be,” he said. “When you’re going through those rough days, those hundred-loss seasons, it’s like you almost can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But we’ve reached the light at the end of the tunnel, and all that dark stuff is behind us now.”
Now the Orioles enter the postseason in an unusual position. It’s not often a 101-win team is a sentimental favorite among neutral fans who like rooting for the underdog, but at this stage in its climb, Charm City’s team is still pretty darn … charming?
Baltimore isn’t the favorite in the AL — that’s defending champion Houston — and the Orioles don’t have much postseason experience. What they do have is a young, athletic roster that has shown remarkable consistency and adaptability throughout the 2023 season.
“A huge part of our success this year is how athletic we are, how versatile we are,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Guys can play all over the field.”
When the Orioles host Texas in Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Saturday, they’ll enter a postseason that already feels a little different. Three teams — Baltimore, Texas and Arizona — have reached this quarterfinal round after losing at least 100 games two years ago. This is also a season in which payroll doesn’t seem to matter that much. Of the 12 teams that reached the playoffs, six had payrolls in the top half of the major leagues and six were in the bottom half.
So the Orioles, who lost 110 games in 2021 and still rank 29th in payroll, fit right in. There may be some frustration in Baltimore in the years to come if the team doesn’t spend enough to keep these talented players together, but for now the Orioles are an up-and-coming bunch just arriving on the scene — with all the excitement that entails.
The Orioles had 48 come-from-behind victories this season, tied for the most in the majors. They had only 27 losses in which they blew a lead, tied for the fewest. They went 30-16 in one-run games, which is a thrilling way to succeed even if it’s difficult to sustain. The bottom line: You’d be hard pressed to find a city that’s had more fun with its baseball team this year than Baltimore.
The Orioles moved back their wall in left field at Camden Yards before the 2021 season, and they hit the fewest homers of any AL playoff team this season. They won with athleticism — Cedric Mullins robbing home runs in center field and rookie Gunnar Henderson showing off his defensive ability at shortstop and third base.
Mullins also hit for the cycle back in May. Henderson would have done the same in an August game at Oakland, but needing only a single in the eighth inning, he instead hit a double.
Although Henderson and catcher Adley Rutschman look capable of being franchise cornerstones for a while, Baltimore’s balance and depth means the Orioles haven’t relied too much on one player.
“There are days that we might not have our power showing, but we’ve got our speed and we’ve got our athletic ability,” Mullins said. “I’d say the balance kind of comes in through everyone being able to step up. Even guys on the bench that day, might have a day off, can come in late, make something happen.”
For such a young team, the Orioles have had remarkably few big performance swings. They went the whole season without being swept in a series and never lost more than four games in a row. There was concern about the number of innings the young starting pitchers were accumulating, but Kyle Bradish finished third in the AL in ERA and rookie Grayson Rodriguez posted a 2.58 ERA after the All-Star break.
“To me, both those guys haven’t lost anything throughout the course of the entire season,” Hyde said. “Maybe even jumped up a little bit. Credit to those guys for staying in shape and pushing through maybe some things that they’ve never had to experience before from an innings standpoint.”
Now the playoffs come to Camden Yards for the first time since 2014. It’s a ballpark that has long been extolled by baseball fans everywhere but — now in its 32nd season of existence — has never hosted a World Series game.
There’s every indication the town is ready for the return of postseason baseball. This week the Orioles held a workout at the ballpark that was open to fans, and there were quite a few who came to sit in the lower level and watch.
“That was super cool,” Hyde said Wednesday. “What a great idea, and we’re really appreciative of all the fans that came out. I wasn’t expecting this. It shows you how incredible Orioles fans are.”
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb