BALTIMORE – As the calendar is about to turn to September, the Baltimore Orioles find themselves in the middle of something they haven’t known for 14 seasons – a pennant chase.
After their 5-3 win over the Al Central leading White Sox Thursday afternoon, the Birds are getting ready for a three game weekend series against the first place Yankees in New York. They are also tied for the top spot in the AL Wild Card lead with the Oakland Athletics.
Who would have thought that when the season started?
Players have come and gone. The shuttle to and from Norfolk and Baltimore has been a busy one all season yet between GM Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter, they have managed to keep this ship afloat.
“There are landmines all through September. There were in August and there were in July. It’s just that’s it’s a journey and it’s been fun to take it with them,” said Showalter.
It’s far from over. This road trip takes them to Toronto before coming back home to face the Yankees for four games. There are also six more games each against both the Rays and the Red Sox and thrown in for good measure is a west coast swing through Oakland and Seattle.
“Now we get to have that time of year that John Hart used to say that the air gets a little cooler, the leaves start turning and there is a little crispness in the air that kind of rejuvenates some tired bodies when you’re playing meaningful games,” said manager Buck Showalter.
“I’ve been in September when it’s the other way around. Trust me; this group is going to have fun with it.”
Maybe that’s because most of them have never experienced a pennant race and they have no idea what is in store for them in this final month of what is sure to be pressure packed baseball.
I have told almost everyone who has asked me this year, do you think the Orioles have enough to keep this up? I always said, “It depends on how well they pitch.”
Well, Thursday Zach Britton allowed 1 run on 7 hits with 10 strikeouts over 8 innings. The Orioles are 30-2 when a starter goes at least 7 innings (15-0 at home). They are also 46-18 in games decided by one (24-6) or two (22-12) runs this year.
A lot of that has to do with a bullpen that for the majority of the year has been lights out. Jim Johnson recorded his 41st save on Thursday which is just four shy of Randy Myers team record of 45 in 1997. Ironically, that’s the last time the Orioles made the post season.
Johnson’s 41 saves is more than the Houston Astros have wins (40).
“We want to win as many games as we can between now and the end of the season and wherever that puts us, it puts us,” said Orioles catcher Matt Wieters.
“All we can try and control is going out there play hard every day and try to win as many games as we can and hopefully at the end of the year it’s got you in that playoff hunt and hopefully if you play really well, you have a chance to win the division.”
Even though they were not in the pennant chase last year, the Orioles did play meaningful games down the stretch against both the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox. In fact, it was the Orioles that put the finishing touches on the Red Sox epic collapse as they blew a 9 game wild card lead in September.
“We can draw on the experience we had last year and how we finished out the year,” Wieters said. “We were playing good teams there who were fighting for the playoffs and we were able to play well so hopefully we can draw on that and know how we have to play this last month.”
The idea is to win the division if it all possible because of the wild card format where there is a one game playoff between both wild card teams. Winner move on and loser go home.
“We want to do everything in our power to stay out of that,” said first baseman Mark Reynolds. “Playing the Yankees we want to do everything we can to get hot down the stretch and overtake them.”
So while this series this weekend in the Bronx means a lot to the fortunes of the Orioles in this race, it’s something Buck Showalter and his team has in total perspective.
“It will be fun. Could be fun if you win. Our guys aren’t going up there to experience the atmosphere. They’re going up there to try and compete with the team we’re trying to catch, he said.