The Orioles were eliminated from the playoffs last night. They were swept in four straight, agonizing American League Championship Series games by the Royals, who have miraculously won all eight of their playoff games and are headed to the World Series. The O's lost those four games by a grand total of six runs, with Games 3 and 4 ending with identical 2-1 scores. Considering the O's won the AL East by 12 games, tied with the Nationals for the second-best record in the majors (96-66), and swept the Tigers in the ALDS in exciting fashion, not collecting a single win in the next round of the playoffs is unquestionably a disappointment.
And yet, here's a positive: The ALCS is over. The endless assault of unexpected home runs, infuriating broken-bat and bloop singles, overconfident pinch-runners, stunning web gems, and overpowering late-game strikeouts is over, at least for the Orioles. Cheering for a team in such an impressive display of baseball was exciting, and the O's seemingly could have won any of the four well-played games. They battled to the very end, which was admirable. But the whole series was also maddening and exhausting. The Royals had an answer for everything the O's threw at them. I'm not sure how that collection of players could play any better. It's not possible.
The Orioles will not be advancing to the World Series, which is unfortunate after they played so well for so long. But they made it to the playoffs for the second time in three years, and they won the division and advanced to the championship round for the first time since 1997. That's a long time! And after finishing with losing records for 14 straight years, the O's have amassed 274 wins the past three seasons. That's a bit more than 91 wins per year. Considering where the organization was when Buck Showalter was first hired, that's quite a turnaround.
Before the season started, Camden Depot's Jon Shepherd predicted that the O's would make the playoffs by grabbing the first of the AL's two wild card spots. And yet, the O's were able to run away with the division, as has been oft-repeated, while missing Matt Wieters, Manny Machado, and Chris Davis for chunks of the season. The team's most expensive free agent acquisition, Ubaldo Jimenez, was awful, and he didn't pitch to a single batter in the postseason (and was left off the ALCS roster entirely). The O's opening day closer, Tommy Hunter, blew a handful of early season saves and was removed from the role. Johan Santana, who seemed likely to join the O's pitching staff sometime in June or July, tore his Achilles tendon. Nelson Cruz and Delmon Young played significant and meaningful innings in the outfield. And Jonathan Schoop received 481 plate appearances and finished with an on-base percentage of .244 (and a wRC+ of 65).
And yet, until they faced the Royals, the Orioles just kept winning. The team's defense was superb. With a huge assist to that defense, the rotation prevented runs and was able to hand the ball off to the bullpen with plenty of leads. Kevin Gausman showed some promise and was even better in the postseason. Zach Britton transformed into a nasty, dominating closer who only needed to rely on his two-seamer to stymie opposing batters. They took a risk and acquired Andrew Miller from the Red Sox, and he was every bit as good as they hoped. The rest of the bullpen fit into their roles nicely. Caleb Joseph demonstrated that he has plenty of defensive skills behind the plate. Schoop showed that he could flash the leather as well. Cruz stayed healthy and mashed 40 home runs, proving to be the middle-of-the-order bat the O's had been seeking. Adam Jones did Adam Jones things, and Nick Markakis did Nick Markakis things. J.J. Hardy didn't hit for much power, but he fielded extremely well at shortstop and was rewarded with a three-year extension. And then there was the most random success story of all, Steve Pearce.
The O's finished with a 47-29 record against AL East foes. They won nine more one-run games than they lost, and they ended up 14-6 in extra-inning games. They were a phenomenal 44-24 in the second half of the season. And they took three of four games against their local rivals, the Nationals. And in Game 2 of the ALDS, there was this exhilarating moment, courtesy of Young:
There are a lot of things I've left out -- wonderful games, specific wins, thrilling moments. In the upcoming weeks and months, we'll look back a bit more at the 2014 season and then ahead to the moves the Orioles need to make as the 2015 season approaches. There will be more time to reflect on the disappointing end to the season. But don't forget to look at the O's roster and appreciate what they accomplished. Plenty of talented Orioles teams in the past underwhelmed and did not achieve nearly enough. No one should be satisfied with any kind of moral victory, but overall, man, what a fun season and a great group of players to root for.