WASHINGTON — A funny thing happened as I got off the Metro and made the long walk from beyond the center-field entrance of Nationals Park to the media entrance behind home plate.
Even though Sunday was set up for a Washington victory with the Orioles having already taken the first two games of the series — there’s a natural inclination to let down when you’re a team inexperienced with winning — and facing the phenomenal Stephen Strasburg for the first time, that didn’t seem to matter.
I expected the Orioles to win on Sunday, for no good reason other than the fact that I felt they were better than their opponent. It’s a feeling I haven’t had in quite some time.
Sure, I’ve predicted the Orioles to win their expected share of games over the last decade and a half. As bad as they’ve been for as long as I can remember, it’s not as though they’ve gone 0-162 every season since 1997.
But this was a different feeling, a swagger rather than confidence based on an isolated matchup or simply expecting the law of averages to swing in the Orioles’ favor.
Maybe that law was simply moving in the opposite direction Sunday to snap a five-game winning streak as the Orioles lost to the Washington Nationals in a 9-3 final. Held to just two hits after the second inning, Baltimore was in trouble in the third inning when right fielder Nick Markakis couldn’t secure what would have been a diving catch as Bryce Harper’s two-run triple put the Nationals on the scoreboard and an early 3-0 lead evaporated soon after.
Starter Wei-Yin Chen pitched the worst game of his young major league career, giving up six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings to take his first loss of the season.
But even after the Orioles fell behind 6-3 and were in the midst of having 15 straight hitters retired at one point, you still thought they could mount a comeback. When you already have six wins when trailing after seven innings — the Orioles had five all last year — people tend to keep watching.
“We never quit. All the way to the end, we had the bases loaded,” said center fielder Adam Jones, referencing the ninth inning after the Orioles had fallen behind 9-3. “It shows we’ve still got fight. We’re happy we won the series, but we’re not content because we want the sweep.”
We’ve heard similar statements from Jones and other Orioles when times have been good, but it just doesn’t sound as hollow now with the club standing at 27-15 and owning a two-game lead in the American League East.
The Orioles have the best road record in baseball at 15-6 and had won nine straight away from Camden Yards before falling on Sunday afternoon. Their 4-1 mark on this most recent trip gives them three straight winning road trips for the first time since 2005.
The prosperity looks even more impressive when you look at all the Orioles have endured. Of the 14 series they’ve played in 2012, only five have come against teams currently with a losing record — two of those teams (Oakland and Boston) are just a game below .500.
Injuries have taken their toll in the month of May as four players from the Opening Day roster currently find themselves on the 15-day disabled list. The club made 22 individual roster moves in a week’s time just to balance the health challenges and the strain put on the bullpen after a number of extra-inning contests.
A plethora of excuses have been there for an Orioles collapse, but this group has yet to take the bait as we approach the final days of May.
Instead, they simply keep winning.
“I just like the heart and hustle,” Jones said. “Everybody shows up here every day, not everybody’s going to feel good. We’ve got injuries; that’s everybody. This group of guys shows up every single day and never makes excuses.”
I’m not ready to deem the Orioles legitimate contenders who are a certainty to be in the pennant race come September, but I have gotten to the point where I no longer believe it can’t happen.
But there’s no rest for the weary as the Red Sox come to town having won eight of their last 10 games to climb out of a deep early-season hole under new manager Bobby Valentine.
“There are some good things that happened on this trip, but now we have to turn our thoughts to Boston,” manager Buck Showalter said. “They’re playing well and it looks like they won again [Sunday], so I know they’re going to be a foe.”
When you haven’t won anything in this century, you’re always going to be under the microscope as observers wait for the first sign of trouble. The Orioles will deal with that reality for the entire 2012 season — or at least until they return to their “normal” spot in the basement of the AL East.
But after watching terrific baseball over the first 42 games of the season, I’m no longer bracing for the inevitable collapse. Until they begin proving otherwise, I actually believe the Orioles are going to win every time they take the field.
It won’t happen every day as we saw on Sunday, but Showalter has made his players believers in the clubhouse and that faith is spreading elsewhere in what’s been the franchise’s best start since 2005.
As we’ve learned how contagious losing can be over the last 14 years, that winning feeling can begin to spread just as quickly.
And it makes for a fun walk to the ballpark.