|Adam Jones (right): 'We're fortunate to be moving on. We're happy to be in this situation.' (US Presswire)|
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Wouldn't you know it? As luck would have it, the Orioles finished second in the Cinderella Standings.
They waited 15 years to return to postseason glory, and while they are indeed in the dance, the lovable O's are at least at the moment taking a back seat among upstarts to the amazing, crazy A's, who finished with a wild, wondrous party at home to win the much, much easier playoff road that comes with their AL West title, including home games.
Meanwhile, the Orioles may get only one lousy game, and nowhere near Baltimore either. The heat is on, literally, as manager Buck Showalter flew with his band of upstarts to his old stomping grounds, in Arlington Texas for the first ever American League wild-card play-in game.
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There isn't room for error, and actually there almost weren't any rooms for the Orioles. Apparently word of their glorious story hadn't gotten to the night manager at the Ritz, as they were told they had no rooms for the Birds. (No word on whether the hotel manager is a Rangers fan.)
Late word was that they did indeed find lodging at somewhere slightly less luxurious than the Ritz. No matter, this will be very tough duty. The Rangers will start international sensation Yu Darvish, never before seen by the Orioles, except on video, which O's star Adam Jones says is about one percent as effective preparation as actual game action. Well, good luck then. Their magic carpet ride could be over one game into the dance.
"We could also win one game," Showalter said in a retort. "We're looking at it as an opportunity. It's there for us ... It's a tough road no matter who you play."
That's very true. You can't get these Orioles down now. You can hardly wipe that smile off their faces.
You can't tell them the slipper really fits the amazing Oakland A's today, or that they look like secondary Cinderellas. Their story is a beauty, as well.
You can't even tell them that they deserved better. As it turned out, they would have tied the other play-in team, Texas anyway, so new rules or not, they'd be headed to Texas to face the Rangers, a team that beat the Orioles five out of seven this year. And that was without Darvish.
When someone suggested the Orioles didn't match up well with Texas, Jones shot back, "Who matches up well with Texas?'
At the moment they may just have been happy to get out of Tampa Bay, where they saw enough of James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and Fernando Rodney, who closed out Hellickson's 4-1 victory Thursday night. Darvish couldn't possibly be any tougher than this, they figure.
The Orioles for now are going with their most frequent pitcher for the Friday do-or-die wild-card game. That's TBD, as Showalter couldn't quite commit late Thursday. This is the perfect team for Buck because he doesn't have a rotation; he has a potpourri. The most likely choice would seem to be another of their out-of-nowhere heroes, Steve Johnson, who's believed to have only received a spring invite this year because he's the son of one of the Orioles TV analysts, Dave Johnson.
Anyway, turns out nepotism works. His son Steve is 4-0 with a 2.11 ERA overall, and while they have little idea how he'll hold up in the Texas heat, he's got to be a better option than the other obvious choice, veteran Joe Saunders, who is 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA lifetime in Rangers Ballpark. Showalter has come up sevens on his rolls of the dice this year, but a Saunders start would just be asking for trouble.
The Orioles entered a busy Thursday night with an outside shot to tie the Yankees for the AL East crown, and while they could imagine their hot young starter Chris Tillman outdueling Hellickson (he didn't as it turned out with Evan Longoria hitting three home runs), they had a hard time seeing how the Yankees could lose to the Red Sox with Boston rolling the Dice-K.
Showalter had his fingers crossed that Jon Lester could win one for floundering Boston Tuesday night, but after Red Sox relievers Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon coughed up Lester's 3-1 lead in the Bronx -- "How could the Red Sox use two righties with six ERAs late in that game?" one Orioles person wondered aloud -- the Orioles' hopes for a share of the title faded.
"We knew the game tonight was a long shot," was the way Showalter assessed Dice-K's chances to beat the Yankees.
By the time the Orioles started here, they pretty much understood they were playing only for home-field advantage, something Showalter stressed as a nice advantage. No matter, after they lost, Showalter told his troops how proud he was of them.
It was a nice message for jobs done surprisingly well over 162 games. Nobody had the Orioles going 93-69 before the year.
Then again, nobody had them getting the slightest of rewards for their troubles, either, a one-game date against what many feel is the league's most talented team.
"I know some people are frustrated," Jones allowed. "You want Camden Yards rockin'."
Not one person was complaining about the tough assignment, though. "That's what the rules are," Showalter said. "It's not like they changed the rules come October."
The Orioles strike a mature pose for their few years. They know they have a shot even if they don't really have a rotation.
They do have the best bullpen in the game, bolstered by the transfer of Tommy Hunter and Brian Matusz, and anchored by the unflappable Jim Johnson, who wound up leading the league with 51 saves. They also maintain a surprise element, as they aren't even destiny's darlings at the moment (that's Oakland).
The Orioles don't lead the league in a lot besides ex-Texas personnel (Showalter is responsible for that, as he suggested the acquisitions of Chris Davis, Pedro Strop and Darren O'Day). But they do enter the game hotter than Texas (the team, not the place), winners 12 of 17 despite the hard series here. And one thing they've learned all along, it just doesn't matter how big the names are on the roster.
They do, indeed, see opportunity. They don't view it as a two-time World Series entrant playing a team that recently ended a streak of 14 straight losing seasons.
"We're fortunate to be moving on,'' Jones said. "We're happy to be in this situation."
If attitude is half the battle, this team is going places, and not just to Arlington, Texas.