BALTIMORE — It’s been a zany, unpredictable season for the Baltimore Orioles, so perhaps it’s only fitting that the magical moment when they clinched a playoff berth occurred while they were aboard a chartered flight forced to land short of its destination.
Instead of spraying each other with champagne — the intended celebration earlier Sunday — the players acknowledged their accomplishment by exchanging handshakes. And that was OK, because Baltimore considers securing a wild-card spot to be nothing more than a stopover on its journey to the World Series.
After 14 straight losing seasons and four consecutive last-place finishes, no one would blame the Orioles for being content with an 81-81 record, much less a wild-card berth. Yet the players believe there is no boundary to what they can accomplish.
The next objective is winning the AL East.
“We’ve put ourselves in position to compete for the division title,” manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s where we set our sights for a while. Getting into the playoffs is a byproduct of playing good baseball and competing in your division. You feel like if you’re competitive in your division late in September, your chances of being involved in another way is good, too.”
Baltimore entered play Monday tied in first place with the New York Yankees with three games left. The Yankees host Boston, a team the Orioles swept over the weekend, and Baltimore was poised for a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Getting to Florida wasn’t easy. The plane was headed to St. Petersburg when a fire in the galley forced an unscheduled landing in Jacksonville. After a lengthy delay, everyone re-boarded and the flight was completed.
Somewhere along the way, the Orioles ended their playoff drought when the Los Angeles Angels lost the second game of a doubleheader to Texas.
“Everybody responded as you could imagine,” Showalter said. “It was very professional. It’s more of a firm handshake and a knowing look.”
Earlier Sunday, the Angels staged a dramatic ninth-inning comeback after the Orioles beat Boston 6-3. And thus, the champagne in the Baltimore clubhouse went unopened.
“We held serve. We did what we could do on the field,” Showalter reasoned. “So it’s get back in the locker room and go to our next challenge.”
There hasn’t been much the Orioles (92-67) haven’t been able to overcome thus far this season. They lost three leadoff hitters to injury, only one pitcher remains from their opening day starting rotation and they’ve won 31 games in which they got one hit or fewer with a runner in scoring position. Ryan Flaherty, a former Deering High School of Portland star, has aided the Orioles in a utility-man’s role while batting .228 in 74 games with six home runs and 19 RBIs.
Baltimore also reversed a culture of losing and revitalized a city that had turned its back on baseball and owner Peter Angelos. In the past, baseball seasons essentially ended when the Ravens started training camp. Now, even the Ravens are paying attention to what the Orioles are doing.
Coach John Harbaugh started his Monday news conference by saying, “Congratulations to the Orioles clinching a playoff berth. That’s tremendous. Now they’re going for the championship. We’ll be pulling for them on that.”
The Orioles topped two million in attendance this season for the first time since 2007. The excitement level at Camden Yards over the weekend conjured memories of yesteryear — the place was sold out Saturday and 41,257 came on Sunday.
“I’m happy for the players and the fans,” said Dan Duquette, who’s done a remarkable job in his first year as vice president of baseball operations. “We were in the hunt when the kids went back to school in September, and now we’re going to play some meaningful games in October. Hats off to Buck and the players. They know that we have more work to do, and they’re going to do everything they can to not only have a playoff game in Baltimore for the fans, but do everything they can to realize the goals and dreams of the organization.”
Instead of spending millions on old, big-name free agents (do Sammy Sosa and Vladimir Guerrero ring a bell?), Duquette took a chance on players such as Nate McClouth, Lew Ford and Wei-Yin Chen — all of whom have contributed heavily.
“Our fans believe in the team, and they’ve seen a lot of the investments that the owners made in the team bear fruit,” Duquette said. “I’m just happy that we made the first step.”
No one knows that the next step will be. The Orioles will begin selling tickets Tuesday for a possible AL East tiebreaker game on Thursday, and there could be a wild-card game on Friday. Or, Baltimore could enter as division champs on Saturday.
“Even though the schedule is taxing and it’s going to be tough, it’s what you play for,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “Physically if you can’t get up for these games you shouldn’t be here. You’ve got to just kind of go with it. We’re in a good position right now, a position we wanted to be in.”