Gary Thorne has had a distinguished broadcasting career that spans four decades.
But this year has been something special for the Old Town native, who is the TV play-by-play man for the surprising Baltimore Orioles on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.
The Orioles are just one game out of first place in the American League East with a 78-62 record and are in the thick of the playoff chase.
If they don’t win the division, they could still earn one of two wildcard berths in the American League.
They haven’t had a winning season or made the playoffs since 1997.
“Of all the teams I’ve done, this is the biggest surprise,” said Thorne. “When I was with the Mets, they were expected to win. They had a lot of talent.
“But there were no such expectations with this club,” said Thorne. “The hope was for a .500 season.
“This is just one of those miracle runs. The numbers don’t add up. Everybody wants to know how they’re doing this.”
The numbers would certainly lead one to believe they’re in a spoiler’s role again.
They have been outscored by 29 runs. They were 10th among 14 American League teams in batting average (.246), ninth in earned-run average (4.09) and last in fielding percentage (.981) entering Tuesday night’s game against fellow contender Tampa Bay, which is just one game behind the Orioles and two behind the league-leading New York Yankees.
But the Orioles are 25-7 in one-run games and have won their last 12 extra-inning games.
“And their bullpen was number one in ERA,” noted Thorne.
Setup man Pedro Strop (5-2, 2.26 ERA, 24 holds) and closer Jim Johnson (1-1, 42 saves, 2.93) have been the keys to the bullpen’s success, he said.
They have had 11 different starting pitchers and Thorne pointed out that they “don’t really have a starting rotation.”
“They use a six- or seven-man staff and they don’t name the starting pitcher until the day before the game,” said Thorne. “Sometimes the starters will pitch with seven, eight, 10 days’ rest. To manage that with such a large group of starters and make it work is amazing.”
He said the Orioles have played much better defense in the second half .
Then there’s manager Buck Showalter, who deserves a lot of credit, according to Thorne.
“The players like playing for him. He has been a real steadying influence,” said Thorne, who also said Showalter is “much calmer” than he was in his previous managerial stops with the Yankees, Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks.
And Thorne, who is in his fifth year with the Orioles, said Showalter has been a joy to work with.
Thorne, the former voice of the Triple-A Maine Guides and the University of Maine’s hockey team, said the demise of the Red Sox and New York’s recent struggles have played roles in Baltimore’s dramatic ascension into a playoff contender.
“And it has been largely due to injuries,” said Thorne, who also pointed out that the Toronto Blue Jays have been hurt by injuries.
For Baltimore, the loss of right fielder and leadoff hitter Nick Markakis (.298-13-54) to a broken thumb “will be a very tough one to overcome,” according to Thorne.
“He’s one of their core players,” said Thorne.
Players such as third baseman Manny Machado, second baseman Robert Andino and outfielder Nate McLouth have done a nice job complementing the stars such as center fielder Adam Jones, shortstop J.J. Hardy and catcher Matt Wieters.
“They’re strong up the middle,” said Thorne, who works with Winterport native and former University of Maine and major league shortstop Mike Bordick on several telecasts.
“Mike’s been great,” said Thorne about his first-year part-time color analyst.
The Orioles have completed their season series with New York, going 9-9, and just nine of their last 22 games are against playoff contenders: six with Tampa Bay and three with Oakland.
What do they have to do to earn a playoff spot?
“They’ve got to keep doing what they’ve been doing,” said Thorne. “Buck is going to have to keep pushing the right buttons. The starters [pitchers] are going to have to get them into the sixth inning, hopefully the seventh. That will get them to Strop and Johnson. They’ve got to keep winning close ballgames.”
Thorne added that Boston’s blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in which the Red Sox sent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, left fielder Carl Crawford, pitcher Josh Beckett and infielder Nick Punto to L.A. for five prospects was a “blow-it-up-gonna-rebuild” trade.
“But they’ll be back [in contention] next year. They’re too strong not to be,” said Thorne.