BALTIMORE — If you’re caught up in the hysteria of the Orioles’ impossible run to the postseason looking more and more like reality, you may not have noticed Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the 2011 season finale.
Of course, the final day of last season may go down as the most exciting in the history of major league baseball with division races coming down to the final inning of the year. Tampa Bay completed an improbable comeback win over the New York Yankees while the 93-loss Orioles knocked Boston out of the playoffs with a dramatic 4-3 walk-off win that ended with a Robert Andino hit to score Nolan Reimold in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The famed “Curse of the Andino” had been born as the Orioles celebrated like they had won the World Series. Yes, it was a fun moment in a make-believe sort of way and players were entitled to a night of celebration after the grind of a 162-game schedule, but the celebration was artificial — no matter how good it may have felt to eliminate the Red Sox from the postseason — knowing the Orioles had just completed their sixth straight season of 90 or more losses.
A year later, the roles are the opposite of what we’ve come to expect over the years as the Red Sox limped to town with a lame-duck manager and a gutted roster on the cusp of 90 losses. In contrast, the Orioles won their 90th game of the season in a 9-1 series-opening win over Boston and reduced their wild card magic number to three to clinch their first postseason berth since 1997.
Not one to gush over individual moments or buy into media concoctions, manager Buck Showalter was asked prior to Friday’s game whether the 2011 finale was the catalyst for the unexpected prosperity the Orioles found this season. His answer was surprising, even if it was delivered in Showalter’s unassuming way.
“I can’t say it didn’t help. It does,” Showalter said. “You create your own intensity and this is a self-starter group. I think once again, we fed off the emotions of our fans, too.”
No one should buy too much stock into the final game of the 2011 regular season being the main reason why the Orioles stand only a game behind the Yankees in the American League East entering Saturday. Just take a look at the roster and you’ll see too many different faces to believe what happened last Sept. 28 was a franchise-altering moment.
But it might have offered just enough of a taste of motivation to the holdovers from 2011 to push through the tough times while also remembering how difficult it was for the Red Sox to complete their postseason mission despite being in excellent position only weeks before the 2011 finale.
With a plethora of unlikely heroes contributing on any given night, the Orioles turned to second baseman Ryan Flaherty and starting pitcher Chris Tillman on Friday night to begin the most crucial series of the season — to this point, anyway — against Boston. Flaherty’s grand slam in the first put the game out of reach as the Rule 5 selection collected a career-high five runs batted in after languishing on the bench for most of the season.
A year ago when the Orioles were knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs, Flaherty was stuck in the Cubs’ minor league system, uncertain where his future might take him. Now he finds himself in a platoon with Andino, receiving regular starts against right-handed pitching.
“It seems like every night it’s someone new, whether it’s a pitcher, hitter, a play in the field, something,” Flaherty said. “Just keep on riding it and, tomorrow, nine more innings.”
Not even invited to join the club last September despite being on the 40-man roster, Tillman began the 2012 season in Triple-A Norfolk as a virtual afterthought behind the other tabbed members of the cavalry in Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Zach Britton. Just over five months later, he’s the only one of the four in the starting rotation as Tillman looks to be a virtual lock for the potential postseason rotation.
He took Friday’s crucial start in stride as he didn’t allow a hit after Scott Podsednik led off the game with a bunt single and retired the final 14 batters he faced in eight stellar innings of work to improve his record to 9-2.
“There is not one game bigger than the other,” Tillman said. “I always try to go out there, go deep in the game and give my team the best chance to win. We are getting to the nitty-gritty here, but we have to focus on tomorrow’s game and not look ahead.”
Showalter’s best accomplishment among many this season has been his ability to balance out his players’ emotions on a daily basis. They’re never too high when they win or too low in defeat. And they’re never caught up in how big a certain game might be, an attitude that will serve them well over the season’s final week and into October.
These days, the Orioles clubhouse is anything but celebratory after wins as an outsider wouldn’t have a clue in figuring out whether the team had won or loss that night.
It’s a stark contrast from the on-field dog pile of a year ago over something that just wasn’t all that meaningful in the long run.
Or, so we thought.
No matter how you view the “Curse of the Andino” and what it meant to this club heading into the 2012 season, the Orioles have a real reason to celebrate this time around.
It’s no longer about playing the role of a spoiler or basking in the glow of a make-believe celebration because there’s nothing better to look forward to. The Orioles are for real and their slaughtering of the down-and-out Red Sox on Friday night was just the latest example in proving that.
Instead of deferring to the heavyweight and hoping to get lucky, they’ve become the team delivering the knockout blow.
Boy, how can things change in only a year.