Ori­oles re­ly­ing on their re­silience

Af­ter up-and-down reg­u­lar sea­son, team that has ‘stuck to­gether’ hopes to make a deep run

Baltimore Sun - - ORIOLES - By Ed­uardo A. Encina eencina@balt­sun.com twit­ter.com/Ed­dieInTheYard

TORONTO — It seems so long ago when the Ori­oles ran out to base­ball’s best start, win­ning their first seven games of the sea­son. That’s be­cause since then, they’ve taken their fans for a whirl­wind 162-game ride that led to tonight’s Amer­i­can League wild-card game against the Amer­i­can League East-ri­val Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Cen­tre.

This Ori­oles team has been as con­fus­ing at it has been com­plex. As eas­ily as the club can get on a roll and look un­beat­able, it can look lost the next day. Now the Ori­oles are in a must-win sit­u­a­tion in the wild-card game, with one night de­ter­min­ing whether they will ad­vance to the AL Divi­sion Se­ries.

“We’re a group that has stuck to­gether,” short­stop J.J. Hardy said. “I think it’s been like a roller coaster, just like ev­ery team, but I think our roller coaster has had some higher [highs] and some lower [lows]. Alot of win streaks, a lot of los­ing streaks. We’re ca­pa­ble of being as good as or bet­ter than any­one at any given time, but we’ve had times where pitch­ing was car­ry­ing us and the hit­ting wasn’t do­ing any­thing and we’ve had times when the hit­ting was do­ing it. I guess ev­ery team is sim­i­lar in a way. I mean, in 162 games, any­thing can hap­pen.”

The Ori­oles needed to win seven of their last nine to clinch a post­sea­son berth, mainly be­cause of a 25-30 record in July and Au­gust. This is a team that spent most of the sea­son lead­ing the AL East, in­clud­ing 109 of the sea­son’s first 129 days. They spent most of the past seven weeks fight­ing for po­si­tion­ing in the divi­sion with the Bos­ton Red Sox and Blue Jays, and all along three AL East teams were po­si­tioned to make the post­sea­son.

“I think the big­gest thing is we were in first place for a long time, and then to fall out of that and be fight­ing for our lives for a wildcard spot just showed the re­silience, I thought,” closer Zach Brit­ton said. “I think the big­gest thing about com­ing to the field ev­ery day with these guys is that the mind­set never changed. It was al­ways the same, even when we had our strug­gles. That’s the main rea­son why we were able to fight through it and win on this last day in a game that we needed to.” Manny Machado watches his three-run home run in the Ori­oles’ 4-1 win against the Dodgers on July 5. The Ori­oles com­piled a 25-30 record in July and Au­gust, but are 17-12 since Sept. 1.

The Ori­oles were just one game over .500 af­ter the All-Star break (38-37), and af­ter their seven wins to start the sea­son were just nine games over .500 (82-73). But they are 17-12 since Sept. 1, a stretch that in­cluded se­ries wins on the road in Detroit, Bos­ton, Toronto and New York.

“It’s def­i­nitely been a dif­fer­ent sea­son than some of our other years,” catcher Matt Wi­eters said. “It’s al­most been a bend-don’tbreak type of men­tal­ity. We’ve seen how good we can be and then we’ve had stretches where things just haven’t clicked for us in cer­tain stretches. But no mat­ter how bad it might have looked for a spell of four, five, six games, it was never, ‘That’s us.’

“We were the team that was win­ning seven in a row, that was go­ing to put up seven or eight runs. I think it’s kind of some­thing with the of­fense we are that it’s a pos­si­bil­ity that good pitch­ing is go­ing to beat good hit­ting more times than not. I just think we’ve been re­ally good at han­dling some of the strug­gles this year and not get­ting too down on our­selves, and know­ing we have the ca­pa­bil­ity to turn it around just like that.”

In late June, the Ori­oles were rid­ing high out West. They were17 “I never felt like there was ever any panic,” first base­man Chris Davis said of the Ori­oles’ sea­son. games over .500 when they were swept in four games in Seat­tle, the first of sev­eral stretches when the Ori­oles’ power bats went silent. But af­ter los­ing their se­ries opener at Dodger Sta­dium, they sal­vaged the road trip with one of their best wins of the year, a 14-in­ning vic­tory over the Los An­ge­les Dodgers on Jonathan Schoop’s go-ahead two-run dou­ble.

Com­ing out of the All-Star break, the Ori­oles won two, then lost four, then won five, then lost five, then won three, one of the most strik­ing up- and- down stretches of the sea­son. In Au­gust, they lost three of four in Oak­land, a se­ries that opened the door for their AL East ri­vals. But the Ori­oles then took two of three in San Fran­cisco against an even­tual play­off team.

Some might call the Ori­oles’ play er­ratic and in­con­sis­tent, but man­ager Buck Showal­ter de­scribes it more as re­silient.

“This team was in­volved in the com­pe­ti­tion right from Day One and never re­ally got away from it,” Showal­ter said. “You go through pe­ri­ods where you’ve got a chance to win the divi­sion, you’ve got a chance to be a wild card, then you’ve got a chance even not to be in it. You don’t over­come that with­out hav­ing a real strong men­tal­ity. So many times we started to say some­thing to these guys, and I just backed off. They got it. Some­times the best manag­ing you do is the manag­ing you don’t do.”

In 2012, when the Ori­oles made their first trip to the post­sea­son in 15 years, ev­ery­thing was new. That club was char­ac­ter­ized by its one-run wins and ex­tra-in­ning hero­ics. In 2014, they pulled away from a mud­dled divi­sion race in the fi­nal two months, be­hind the lead­er­ship of a play­off-tested veteran in Nel­son Cruz, who willed the team to vic­tory on some nights.

Find­ing the team’s iden­tity this year is more dif­fi­cult. Cen­ter fielder Adam Jones — the team’s long­est-tenured player — said the club’s strength go­ing into the post­sea­son is its sea­son­ing. Play­ers who had three to five years of ex­pe­ri­ence five years ago are now un­ques­tioned veteran lead­ers who have been through the ups and downs of the reg­u­lar sea­son and the play­offs.

“We’re just older,” Jones said. “We’re vet­er­ans. This year it’s a cul­mi­na­tion of, ‘OK guys, we’ve been here be­fore.’ Now we un­der­stand what it takes to get in and you see it. We’ve done the hard part of get­ting in here. I think that comes with hav­ing just a lit­tle more ex­pe­ri­ence in these sit­u­a­tions and hav­ing a lit­tle more lead­er­ship.

“We know how to play to­gether, we know how to win to­gether. I think as a team we know how to win to­gether. The core of this team — me and Wi­eters have been to­gether since ’09 — and the ma­jor­ity of this team has been to­gether since ’11 and ’12. That’s a long time.”

Whether the ups and downs help this team as it chases the city’s first World Se­ries ti­tle since 1983 re­mains to be seen, but they know mo­men­tum can pro­pel a team through the post­sea­son. Two years ago, both World Se­ries teams — the Giants and Kansas City Roy­als — emerged from the wild-card game. But in a must-win wild-card game, this roller coaster ride of a sea­son can ei­ther stop quickly or con­tinue deeper into Oc­to­ber.

“We’ve been in sit­u­a­tions where we’ve kind of put our­selves be­hind the 8-ball, but I never felt like there was ever any panic,” first base­man Chris Davis said. “I felt like it was also a men­tal­ity like we were go­ing to get it done. It may not look great right now, but we’re just go­ing to keep grind­ing it and turn­ing it around. I think that’s big, es­pe­cially the way the play­offs are set up now. It’s re­ally, ev­ery­thing goes down to the wire and the good thing about it is if you get hot at the right mo­ment, a lot of times that can carry you through the post­sea­son.”

SEAN M. HAFFEY/GETTY IM­AGES

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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