Orioles intend to build upon last season’s success

For the first time since 1997, the Baltimore Orioles are coming

off a year that calls for an encore.

After a run of 14 straight losing seasons, the Orioles went

93-69 in 2012 and beat the then-defending AL champion Texas Rangers

in the wild-card game. Baltimore then took the New York Yankees to

the maximum five games before falling in the division series.

Now it’s time for the Orioles to prove their sensational

bounce-back season wasn’t just an aberration, but rather the start

of something big in a city that has renewed its love for the long

downtrodden franchise.

”You always knew this was a sports town, you always knew this

was an Orioles town,” second baseman Brian Roberts said. ”That

playoff atmosphere blew my wildest expectations out of the water as

to what this city was like when this team wins.”

So while the Baltimore Ravens were winning the Super Bowl, the

Orioles’ most significant moves during the offseason were to

provide extensions for manager Buck Showalter and vice president of

baseball operations Dan Duquette. Both are signed through 2018.

Duquette didn’t delve deep into the free agent market over the

winter, but Baltimore didn’t lose much, either. So, with a few

exceptions, this is the same squad that finished a surprising

second place in the unforgiving AL East.

”Why fix it if it ain’t broke?” right fielder Nick Markakis

said. ”We’ve got a young team, a lot of good young players, guys

coming up. I can understand where Dan and Buck were coming from. We

have a good lineup.”

Markakis played in only 104 games last season because of

injuries, one of several Orioles to miss significant playing time.

Roberts (concussion, hip) was used in 16 games, outfielder Nolan

Reimold (neck) was sidelined after April 30 and right-hander Jason

Hammel – the ace of the starting rotation – pitched in only two

regular-season games after July 13 because of a knee injury.

Fortunately, the Orioles had the depth to cover for their

injuries, and they’re confident they can do the same if necessary

in 2013.

”At no time in our clubhouse did somebody go, `We lost Nick. We

lost Nolan. We lost Hammel. We lost Roberts.’ I can go right down

the line,” Showalter said. ”It gave somebody else a chance to

shine.”

Somebody such as rookie third baseman Manny Machado, who expects

to build upon a solid 52-game debut over the final two months.

Another late-comer who shined was Nate McLouth, who was plucked

from baseball’s scrap heap and took over the leadoff spot held

previously by Reimold, Markakis and Roberts. McLouth played so well

(.342 on-base percentage, 12 stolen bases in 55 games) that the

Orioles’ made re-signing the free agent outfielder one of their

main offseason priorities.

McLouth stayed in Baltimore because he enjoys playing for

Showalter and with a team that appears to have a bright future.

”Expectations are obviously raised now, and that’s a good

thing,” McLouth said. ”I know the fans are going to have a lot of

excitement. We’re looking forward to duplicating what we did last

year and then moving beyond that.”

That’s right. The Orioles won’t be satisfied with merely

replicating their success of last season. Now that they know what

it’s like to taste champagne during the postseason, they’re

striving to play deep into October.

”Our guys were very proud of the improvement last year, but

they were not proud to get beat in Game 5,” Showalter said. ”I’ve

got a good feeling. The core of people we have are very easy to

trust. I feel like they’re willing to do what it takes to get

there.”

No matter how many players it takes.

”We have a lot of depth, not just at the major league roster,”

center fielder Adam Jones said. ”Last year, we used 52 guys. Now,

we got guys in Triple-A that have major league experience. It

definitely helps out. That helps the psyche of this team.”

Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and closer Jim Johnson (51 saves in

54 chances) are the closest thing to stars on the Baltimore roster.

But there are several other significant contributors on offense –

such as J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis – and Johnson was merely the

last man out of a bullpen with Brian Matusz, Darren O’Day and Pedro

Strop.

”We’ve got a lot of guys that are very, very, very good,”

Jones insisted. ”It’s just playing the game. I told you last year,

give me 25 guys that compete, and I’ll take them. I don’t need

superstars. I just need people that are going to compete and play

selfless baseball.”