By CAMERON CALDWELL
September 27, 2012
Coming into the 2012 season, the Orioles already had a core of solid offensive players led by the likes of Mark Reynolds, Adam Jones, JJ Hardy, Nick Markakis and Matt Wieters, and a promising, yet uncertain set of young pitchers dubbed the “cavalry”. However, Vegas odds predicted that they would win fewer than 70 games. In the offseason, Baltimore signed Dan Duquette as their General Manager, a former Boston GM known for turning around the Montreal Expos and Boston Red Sox, yet had been out of the game for nearly a decade. Duquette, along with manager Buck Showalter, had historically winning pasts, and made it clear that they were ready to win now. Instead of signing big name free agents, Duquette chose to sign several defensive-oriented players at backup and platoon roles. Such names include a 27 year-old Taiwanese southpaw with pinpoint control out of the Japanese Nippon Professional League named Wei-Yin Chen, a 28 year-old former pitching prospect named Miguel Gonzalez out of the Mexican Winter League, and traded fan favorite Jeremy Guthrie for a journeyman starter named Jason Hammel. With an opening day payroll of $81 million, less than half that of the Red Sox and Yankees, Duquette was fully aware of the fact that he would have to exploit a market inefficiency in order to contend, and he did so by focusing on the development of the bullpen. As of Sunday, the bullpen had amassed 520 innings, more than 100 innings higher than the Yankees. This year has seen its share of wild extra inning games, starting in early May, when designated hitter Chris Davis earned the victory for the Orioles after coming in for relief in the 16th and 17th innings. Since then, the Orioles have won 16 straight extra inning games, a feat not accomplished since 1949. While the Orioles have had their fair share of late and extra inning offensive heroics this season, none of these would be possible without their stellar bullpen, led by All-Star closer and MLB saves leader Jim Johnson. All the more remarkable about the bullpen group, is the fact that they have won 16 of the Orioles 87 wins this year — accounting for nearly 20% of the Baltimore’s wins. As a result, the Orioles have out-scored their opponents by 28 runs in extra innings, compared to a far less than stellar minus-33-run differential in innings one through nine. Throughout the last few months, Duquette has made a number of seemingly head-shaking moves that somehow have proved successful. These transactions include picking up washed-up former stars off of waivers in late August and giving them occasional spot starts, trading for future Hall of Famer, Jim Thome, and calling up outfielder Nate McLouth and others from Triple A. Furthermore, on August 9, in an effort to bolster the defense and provide the team with a spark, Duquette promoted 20 year-old shortstop prospect Manny Machado from Double A Bowie to play third base. Despite his youth, Machado homered twice in his second game, once more in his third game, and has transformed the Orioles from one of the worst defenses into a rock-solid one. When leadoff hitter Nick Markakis broke his thumb in a game against the Yankees on September 8, the O’s chances of making the playoffs looked bleak. Since then, however, several role players have won games for Baltimore, most notably McLouth, who has been a major spark plug for this team with his late-inning offensive heroics. In fact, the Orioles are performing feats of an almost mythological nature on a daily basis. Just this past Tuesday the O’s scored two runs in the ninth to tie the game against Seattle, and when the Mariners failed to score in the bottom of the ninth, an extra innings battle ensued. Finally, in the top of the 18th after Orioles relievers managed to get out of several scary situations, backup catcher Taylor Teagarden produced the game winning RBI. Following this game, which ended just minutes short of four AM East-coast time, Duquette once again surprised all by calling up 19 year-old über prospect Dylan Bundy — the top pitching prospect in baseball and a once-in-a-generation type talent--to pitch out of the bullpen. Duquette has truly utilized all his resources and has proved his desire to win now. While Showalter, Duquette, the bullpen, and the statistical oddities have all been remarkable stories for Baltimore, these are just a few aspects of a handful of legendary Orioles magic that has unfolded this season. Needing only three more victories to reach 90 wins, the O’s will have done so with only a single pitcher on the staff with 10 or more victories. That campaign comes in the form of Wei-Yin Chen. Furthermore, the Birds have had 51 players on the big league club and 75 in Triple-A Norfolk. Despite these continuous roster changes, several players have individually carried the Orioles at variously points in the season, resulting in a 67-0 record when leading after 7 innings, 27-9 record in one run games, and a 16-2 mark in extra inning games. On Sunday, following another walkoff win in twelve innings against the Red Sox, Baltimore lost a heartbreaker 2-1 in Boston, putting their six game winning streak to a halt. However, Bundy debuted in the eighth in a crucial situation with runners on, and the young righty gave up no hits and stranded the base-runners. With ten games left to play, Baltimore trails New York by one game in the American League East and holds a one-game lead over Oakland for the first of two wild card spots. Thanks to a rule change that added extra wild card teams this season, if the Orioles do not win the division, yet clinch the first wild card spot, they will face Oakland in a one game playoff at Camden Yards to determine who will play the other division winners. When all is said in done, whatever happens to this team will be a step in the right direction. The Birds have already won 20 more games then they were supposed to and are on the brink of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1997, a time when many of us had a core curriculum of ABC’s and naptime. Despite the fact that much of the Orioles feats this year are statistical oddities, they seem primed to win in coming years with Bundy, Machado, Jones, Wieters, and company. So for now, my only advice is to sit back, grab some Bohs, and wait for that Orioles Magic to strike yet again.