After the most eventful Sunday in recent Baltimore Orioles history — an emergency landing in Jacksonville, Fla., followed by the mathematical clinching of their first postseason berth in 15 years — star center fielder Adam Jones sought context.
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“I didn’t know we were going to be as good as we were,” Jones said, in a quiet moment at his locker Monday afternoon. “I knew we were going to be good — but not as good as we are.”
He paused for effect.
He’s right. There is no such thing as a bad playoff team. The Orioles, expected to fade down the stretch, had the best September (19-9) of any team in the American League. The agnostics say the Orioles are lucky — 28-9 in one-run games, 16 victories in extra innings — but it’s downright offensive to dismiss them as an anomaly. The Orioles win close games because they have an excellent manager, stout bullpen and a lineup stacked with power hitters.
The Orioles could lose the rest of their games this season and still go down as one of the great stories of 2012. Buck Showalter is a top candidate for AL Manager of the Year. Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and 50-save closer Jim Johnson made the All-Star team. Nate McLouth resuscitated his career. Manny Machado emerged as one of the game’s bright young stars. Chris Davis swatted 32 home runs — and counting. Jim Thome, growing more beloved by the year, continued his laudable quest for a ring.
Decades from now, the 2012 Orioles may be remembered as the team that revived passion for the sport in a forlorn baseball city, inspiring generations of fans to rediscover their abiding love for the Birds. The 1967 Red Sox are continually canonized for doing the same in Boston. As legacies go, a group of ballplayers can do far worse.
But at the moment, these Orioles are stuck between the present to which they aspire and posterity of which they are assured. Their season is successful. They haven’t done enough — yet — to call it completely satisfying. There is a distinction between the two.
In baseball, the goal is to fly flags. World Series banners are the ideal, but the intermediate banners — league pennants, division championships — are viewed as accomplishments worthy of a champagne spill. To that end, the Orioles are dropless. Sunday’s tarmac clincher — via the Angels’ loss to Texas, witnessed onboard through reliever Darren O’Day’s iPad — assured them only an appearance in the newfangled wild-card game, possibly on the road.
Ironically, if the Angels had lost to Texas in Game 1 of Sunday’s doubleheader, the Orioles would have had a sudsy celebration with all the trappings. They had lingered at Camden Yards after Sunday’s win — along with many of their fans — until the Angels’ rally scuttled their plans.
“We had all the plastic (sheets) — the clubhouse was ready,” Jones said. “Run around Camden Yards, spray people in the face with champagne, burn their eyes — that’s what I wanted to do.”
Now, strangely, it remains possible that the Orioles will not return to Camden Yards to play again this year. That’s a cruel notion for the fans who have longed to flood Eutaw Street for postseason baseball since the crushing ALCS loss to Cleveland on Oct. 15, 1997. The Orioles can guarantee themselves another home game by winning the AL East, but those hopes took a hit Monday. The Orioles fell to the plucky Tampa Bay Rays, 5-3, while the New York Yankees routed the vacuous Boston Red Sox, 10-2.
The Yankees lead the Orioles by one game with two to play. In other words, the Orioles’ destiny is no longer exclusively theirs to determine.
“Our minds are set on trying to win the division,” shortstop J.J. Hardy said. “There’s no question about that. That’s what we all want.”
There is no shame in losing late-season games to the relentless Rays, who have won 11 of 12 but were nonetheless eliminated from postseason contention with Oakland’s win Monday night. (Prediction: Tampa Bay would be clinching the AL East right about now if the sore-legged Evan Longoria had played 102 games this season, rather than 72.)
For the Orioles, the way they lost was more shocking than the defeat itself: Baltimore had owned the AL’s best fielding percentage since Machado joined the team Aug. 9 . . . and Monday’s decisive play was a Machado error at third base, on Longoria’s routine grounder to begin the seventh. The Rays scored three runs in the inning, bursting open a 1-1 tie.
The math was simple and devastating: three unearned runs in a two-run loss.
“I should’ve caught it,” said Machado, the 20-year-old prodigy who played all of two games at third base in the minor leagues. “It took a little sidespin on me. It ate me up. I should have taken a step forward.”
This was Machado’s first pro game at Tropicana Field, and he acknowledged afterward that he should have taken more ground balls on the artificial turf during batting practice. “It’s an adjustment I need to make, but no excuse,” he said. Wieters expressed confidence that Machado, who went 0 for 3 at the plate, would put the mistake behind him.
“Knowing Manny, he’ll handle it fine,” Wieters said. “He knows the plays he’s been able to make so far this season have gotten us to where we are now. He’ll be back tomorrow, ready to go.”
As of this moment, the Orioles are promised only three such tomorrows. A division title would guarantee more. And the sight of red, white and blue bunting on the overhangs at Camden Yards would elevate the Orioles’ 2012 season from great to sublime.
“We want the division,” Jones said Monday, more than once. “That’s what we’re going to celebrate, if we get that.”