2012: When ‘In the playoffs’ and ‘Down the stretch’ reentered Baltimore’s vocabulary.

This is the time of year we’ve gotten used to being relieved we don’t have to watch the Orioles anymore. But Friday night, we were suddenly sick over not being able to watch them until next year. This was the year Baltimore swelled with pride watching them, after those 14 years of oblivion.

A season that started out with all the usual win total projections ended up in a place no one imagined it would. The improbable, 1-run wins snowballed, and a string of extra-inning wins stretched to 16 and defied belief. One run ahead in the 7th inning? Here comes that bullet-proof bullpen to hold a lead. It happened no fewer than 75 times without a loss until the playoffs.

There was room for criticism along the way, when the lineup failed to bring home baserunner after baserunner in scoring position for chunks of the season and the playoffs; when runners got doubled off, cutoff men were missed, and errors at the corners for most of the first half caused many a shoe to be thrown at a TV screen.

Then, on August 9, Manny Machado got the call to play third, and the defense led the league in fewest errors after the All Star Break and allowed the pitching to smooth out. Machado wasn’t the only difference, as Nate McLouth also brought a defensive upgrade, and Mark Reynolds shored up first base to a near-Gold Glove level with some of the most stunning saves of errant throws you’ll ever see.

Offensively, Adam Jones signed an $85.5 million contract early in the season and had a first half worthy of a budding star. He hit his 24th home run on July 27th and stopped going deep for a month, before his 100th career home run (No. 25 on the year) finally came on August 28. Sore hands from being hit by pitches could be pointed to for part of the explanation.

He would hit seven more before hitting the wall again with about two weeks left in the season. He went 4-for-4 with a homer, 2 RBI and a steal in a Sept. 24 win over Toronto at Camden Yards, and then hit no home runs and drove in exactly two more runs the rest of the way, including the playoffs. He brought a wet noodle instead of a bat to the plate with him in the postseason and acknowledged being “on vacation,” but he wasn’t alone.

He wasn’t the only Oriole who flailed at strike three in a rally situation, either down the stretch or in the playoffs, or who missed a cutoff man during the year, allowing an opponent’s go-ahead run to score. He was just the most noticeable one due to his experience, popularity and contract, and because of his use of Twitter.

Just a couple of suggestions, though. He could stand to learn leadership is not wallpapering Twitter with grammatically poor, cheerleading slogans, regardless of how much that fuels his popularity. And he could learn the cutoff man is just as important as how far he can throw the ball.

But it would be wrong to run roughshod over him without mentioning Reynolds’ struggles, when he had an anemic eight home runs up until early August before a torrid streak brought his total to 23 in addition to bringing his average up. He hit his 23rd and last on Sept. 26, though, struggling at the plate down the stretch just as mightily as his defense was stellar.

Nick Markakis had surgery to remove part of the hamate bone in his right wrist and was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career on June 1. He returned to the Orioles on July 13, stepped into the leadoff spot, and was simply the reason, along with Machado’s defense, for the club’s 18-9 August, when the club trimmed a 10-game Yankee lead in AL East to a tie for first.

But Markakis was hit by a pitch September 8 and broke his left thumb, forcing him to the 45-day DL and forcing McLouth to take over the leadoff duties. It might be overstating things to say the team went from Markakis to McLouth leading off and didn’t skip a beat, but they were 17-8 without Nick.

Just being able to say “in the playoffs” or “down the stretch” made this – a season when the Orioles followed 69-93 with 93-69 – stand out in most people’s memories and keep a smile on Baltimore’s face for some time to come.

Looking ahead, it’s nothing but continued good health for the forseeable future as a franchise. The Orioles still need a No. 1 starter, and you never know who Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter will pluck from the existing roster.

But Dylan Bundy will go through his second Spring Training and Kevin Gausman his first, and the pitching future, with the arrival of Chris Tillman as a mature pitcher, and the successes of Joe Saunders and Jason Hammel, has seldom been brighter. The starters always were the key. The bullpen got better because of them.

Machado’s solidifying of third base and the return of Markakis to full health in right means two other things are question marks: second base and left field. McLouth seems to have staked a claim for the left field job, but Nolan Reimold‘s return to full health (a relative term for him) introduces a question there.

At second, Duquette and Showalter will have to decide whether a platoon of Ryan Flaherty and Robert Andino does the trick, or a return to full health of Brian Roberts (a relative term for him, too) changes things.

The Orioles did not have a .300 hitter, and Jones led the way at .287.  Wei-Yin Chen went 12-11, his 12 wins the most they got from a starter, and he actually went 0-4 with two non-decisions in six starts in September plus October. Yet he was the team’s most solid starter.

Improve just those two things, and see what happens in 2013.

Oh and by the way, what (cough, cough) did the (cough, cough) Nationals do Friday night?

About The Author

- Staff Writer

Steve is a lifelong Orioles fan who has somehow managed not to be completely repulsed by 14 losing seasons. We'll call this past season their 14th consecutive, 162-game Spring Training for next year. He grew up an Oriole, Baltimore Colts, and Baltimore Bullets nut. Email Steve at skatz@orioles-nation.com.