BALTIMORE — For years, the discrepancy was clear as the Orioles wallowed at the bottom of the American League East.
Lagging behind in payroll and player development, they looked up at the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays while being stuck in neutral with no apparent direction or plan of how to get better. The Orioles didn’t spend like New York or Boston and couldn’t cultivate their own talent like Tampa Bay while suffering through a seemingly endless run of fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the toughest division in baseball year in and year out.
When the Orioles finally broke through Tuesday night with an 8-2 win over the Toronto Blue Jays to win their first AL East title since 1997, it was an atypical sum of the parts that put them on top. Yes, their payroll is higher now than it was for years, but it still remains in the middle of the pack and far below those of the Yankees and Red Sox. Their farm system has produced a number of key players, but it isn’t the well-oiled machine like those of other top organizations in baseball.
It started with Andy MacPhail using some savvy trades and top draft picks to put together a core group of All-Star talent and continued with the arrival of manager Buck Showalter and current executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, who began filling in the gaps with below-the-radar additions and, finally, a couple high-profile free agents this past winter. What’s resulted is a club that’s won more than 90 games for the second time in three years and appears poised to make a deep run in October.
The journey certainly hasn’t been easy as the season-ending injuries to catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado and the recent 25-game suspension of first baseman Chris Davis have provided easy excuses for the Orioles to wilt down the stretch. Not all has gone to plan as the $50 million free-agent addition of starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez has been an utter failure in the first season of a four-year commitment.
But Tuesday’s win provided the perfect microcosm of what’s made the Orioles continue to thrive in 2014.
You can expect the unexpected.
Making his first start in a month after being dumped from the starting rotation, Jimenez overcame a shaky beginning to pitch five solid innings to earn just his fifth win of the season. Ironically, it was the kind of important game in which the Orioles envisioned Jimenez pitching when they signed him in February.
A three-run home run in the first inning came off the bat of Steve Pearce, the journeyman who was designated for assignment in April before being re-signed a few days later when Davis went on the disabled list. The 31-year-old has gone on to hit a career-high 18 homers, which is more than he’d hit in his first seven major league seasons combined. More than any other player, Pearce might be the ultimate symbol of the 2014 Orioles when the final chapter is written sometime next month.
A solo shot came an inning later from third baseman Jimmy Paredes, who was claimed off waivers by the Orioles during spring training and then lost to the Kansas City Royals a couple days later. Duquette eventually reacquired the 25-year-old in time for him to provide a handful of big hits in his few weeks with the club.
T.J. McFarland pitched a scoreless sixth inning. He was the Rule 5 selection the Orioles stubbornly retained on the 25-man roster all last season.
Darren O’Day provided 1 1/3 innings of excellent relief as he has for the last three seasons. The sidearm pitcher was claimed off waivers from Texas before Duquette was even hired three years ago.
Left field Alejandro De Aza hit the three-run triple in the seventh to bust the game open after he was acquired for two nondescript minor-league pitchers at the waiver trade deadline late last month.
Dominant lefty Andrew Miller struck out the only two hitters he faced and has been exactly what the Orioles envisioned when they acquired the best relief pitcher on the market while the rest of baseball lauded Oakland and Detroit for acquiring Jon Lester and David Price, respectively. The Orioles now own a better record than the Athletics and the Tigers.
When Pearce fielded the final out for the club’s 91st win of the season, it was just the latest example of the sum being much greater than the parts appear on paper.
There hasn’t been a set formula apparent to the rest of the baseball world that explains the Orioles’ ascent over the last few years, but they play great defense, hit home runs, and have pitched as well as anyone since early June. Those strengths have allowed them to overcome the loss of All-Star position players and failed free-agent acquisitions.
For Duquette and Showalter, the question isn’t who is the best player as much as it’s who is the best fit. It hasn’t been about spending money as much as it’s been about making the smartest decision.
And it’s been perfectly imperfect as Baltimore wrapped up the division title with 11 games to spare.
Whether they have 11 wins in them next month remains to be seen, but the journey to this point has been both difficult and overwhelmingly rewarding.
And it paid off with a celebration at Camden Yards Tuesday night while the rest of the American League East was looking up at the Orioles for a change.