16 October 2014

Focusing on the Positives After a Frustrating ALCS Sweep

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.


Anonymous said...

Great read. Next year we will be back.

Elder Eddie White said...

Nice playing you, Orioles. You have a great team and really overcame a lot of injuries to get where you did. I hope my Royals (who are for the most part humble, unlike the pinch runner you mention) and you all meet again next year the same time and place. Eddie, a longtime Royals fan.

Eric C said...

You know, as a lifelong fan from NJ, in a family of Yankee fans and surrounded by others I can not describe this season. This only rivals the season 2 years ago, and that only beats it out due to sheer unexpectedness and ups-and-downs (late games, extra inning wins, more no-names working than ever expected [hello Lew Ford, Nate Mclouth, Robert Andino, and more]). That team will always be special in my mind for good reason, but this team will be up there too.

Buck has done and proved so much to the fans that for years expected nothing but losses, headaches, off-field problems, and mockery. This team played their butts off and did something just 4 years ago I would have not even considered possible, in making it this far. Being considered on of the 4 or 5 best teams in the majors, and reaching the ALCS proved so many people the last 3 years weren't flukes, and Baltimore is a legit team.

And then the players made it great too. Delmon Young? Signed to a minors deal that few thought would even make it out of spring training; well he only had what is possibly the biggest hit of the year to win a playoff game. Zach Britton? Left for dead as an odd-man out of the rotation, who only made the team based on being out of options and no real trade possibility in place; turned into a top 5 closer. Steve Pierce? Journey man who was there in 2012, but not at the same level as other names; turned into the breakout help we needed when problems arose, and always showed his hearty and passion until the last play of the season. Then you have Markakis finally getting his well deserved time in the playoffs and proving people with a fantastic ALDS and Game 1 of ALCS he is someone who many forgot about in the league and showed why he is beloved. Ryan Flaherty showed O's fans a lot with a fantastic postseason in both series. Caleb Joseph stepped in for Matt W, after he started his best season to date, and made us almost forget he was missing with great D and one hot stretch that was awesome a few moths ago. And Adam Jones playing at his same great level to lead a team on the field and emotionally, staying hungry and pie-ing faces, while getting some justice for his playoffs 2 years ago (no 100% but that was a big HR and he had a few other good hits, and the steal vs. DET.).

This team was special. And although it hurts a lot nothing broke our way this series, and all the small plays that were normally even over a season, went their way in 1 series, I am happy with how this team played and turned out.

Can't wait for next year. Let's Go O's!

Michael said...

Sure, it's disappointing that the season is over, but what an excellent year. Attending Game 1 of the Tigers series at Camden Yards was thrilling!

The Birds lost to the Royals with one-third of their lineup out. I expect Wieters, Machado, and Davis will be back next year. Gausman will be a front-of-the-rotation starter, and Bundy may well be part of that rotation.

A very bright future ahead.

Anonymous said...

"a great group of players to root for"
Yeah what a great group of fine role models for the Baltimore youth to look up to.
Nelson Cruz--Cheater
Chris Davis--Cheater
Manny Machado--Bat throwing child who should have been suspended for the year.
Delmon Young---Another bat thrower who 'WAS' suspended for the rest of the year in the minors for throwing his bat at the home-plate umpire
plus he was suspended for pushing a different umpire on another occasion
not to mention his suspension and arrest for drunkedness and yelling anti-semitic remarks to a NY cop.

Yes a great group of guys to root for.

Of course this is from a city that thinks Ray Lewis is a hero and it doesn't bother them that he tried to cover up a murder investigation.

David said...

Go home, anonymous. You're drunk.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I was referring more to their talents on the baseball field and what they were able to accomplish. Good luck watching various athletes and trying to figure out who are "good" or "bad" people. That seems like a strange way to watch, and it must be exhausting.

Anonymous said...

The truth hurts doesn't it?