NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees were celebrating a 3-1 victory over Baltimore in the American League Division Series clincher Friday night when the Orioles began retrieving their bats and gloves and peeling off down the dugout runway. The most notable straggler in the group was center fielder Adam Jones, who stood transfixed at the dugout railing as the painful-yet-captivating scene played out before him.
It has been a memorable season for Jones, Baltimore's multi-skilled No. 3 hitter and budding team leader. After signing an $85.5 million contract extension in May, he expressed the hope that he was on the ground floor of something special. And sure enough, it happened more quickly than he could have imagined. Jones hit 32 home runs, banged out 186 hits and logged a career-high best .839 OPS, and the Orioles defied the skeptics to win 93 regular-season games. They beat Texas in a one-game wild-card playoff and took the Yankees to the limit before calling it a year.
The Orioles' inspirational run provided only so much consolation as Jones experienced a whirlwind of sensations Friday. In a perfect world, the Orioles and Washington Nationals would have both won on the same day and perpetuated the dream of a Beltway World Series. Instead, Jones' night ended with the Yankees dancing in the infield, Frank Sinatra blaring in his ears, and a 2-for-23 ALDS performance gnawing a hole in his gut.
"We have to remember this feeling,'' Jones said. "We were that close. We've taken steps in the right direction, but now we have to get over that hump.
"This postseason experience is what it's all about. I texted B.J. Upton the other day, and the Rays have been in the playoffs the last few years, and he said, 'It seems like failure if you don't get there.' This is where we feel we belong. The East is going to get stronger, but we feel like we're one of the teams to beat now. We're not just a pushover. We're going to come out next year ready to bust some heads and play the exact same game we played this year.''
When the Orioles wake up Saturday with no game on the agenda, they'll all have something to think about. Closer Jim Johnson can reflect upon two bad outings against the Yankees on the heels of a 51-save regular season. Jones, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis will remember going a combined 15-for-104 against New York pitching. And Nate McLouth's mind will flash back to a long fly ball off Sabathia that curved just foul in the sixth inning of Game 5. At least, that's what the umpiring crew gleaned from the television replay.
At the start of the year, we were expected to be at the bottom of the East, and we're one of the last eight teams to be playing. We put a pretty good scare into a $200 million ballclub over there. We could have just as easily been on the other side of this series celebrating right now.
”-- Orioles reliever Darren O'Day
Jones offered no excuses for his shortcomings on the big October stage, and took full accountability for his failures. "I felt good every time I stepped to the plate,'' he said. "I just didn't get it done.'' He took solace in some encouragement from former Orioles pitcher and current minor league instructor Scott McGregor, who duly noted that Eddie Murray went 4-for-26 in his first World Series appearance against Pittsburgh in 1979 before going on to amass 500 homers and 3,000 hits and make the Hall of Fame on his first try. Murray just happened to be lucky enough to bomb in the postseason three decades before the invention of Twitter.
Once the pain eases and perspective takes hold, the Baltimore players can take gratification in restoring a sense of pride in the black-and-orange colors in the Charm City. The Orioles surpassed 2 million fans for the first time since 2007, and manager Buck Showalter changed the culture in the clubhouse and between the lines. The Orioles displayed a flair for winning close games and extra-inning games, and became convinced that they could outlast opponents with shutdown relief pitching, clutch hitting and sheer force of will.
"This team has all the makings of a sustainable winning ballclub,'' said reliever Darren O'Day. "At the start of the year, we were expected to be at the bottom of the East, and we're one of the last eight teams to be playing. We put a pretty good scare into a $200 million ballclub over there. We could have just as easily been on the other side of this series celebrating right now.''
In hindsight, general manager Dan Duquette tapped into all available resources in shaping the 2012 Orioles. Lefty Wei-Yin Chen, a rookie from Taiwan, led the team with 12 wins and 192 2/3 innings pitched. Miguel Gonzalez, signed out of the Mexican League by Caribbean scouting guru Fred Ferreira, never flinched in big games. And when the Orioles needed reinforcements in August, Duquette went out and acquired pitcher Joe Saunders in a trade with Arizona and called up McLouth, who had signed a minor league deal with Baltimore after being released by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Saunders gave the Orioles two valiant postseason performances, and McLouth was far and away Baltimore's best player in the New York series. They helped establish Baltimore as a beacon of hope for the previously unwanted and a place where baseball resurrections could come true.
"This stings, but I think if you go back seven or eight months ago to what people were saying and writing, it doesn't necessarily line up with where we're sitting right now.'' McLouth said. "That's something to be proud of. It doesn't really take away from how this feels today. But it's been great to be a part of.''
Duquette has several items on his agenda this winter. Do the Orioles exercise an $11 million contract option on Reynolds, who made a successful conversion from third base to first and hit 23 homers? Do they bring back McLouth and hope that he can make for a productive platoon with the often-injured Nolan Reimold in left field? And do they move aggressively to upgrade the second base position or wait for injury-prone franchise mainstay Brian Roberts to make his umpteenth comeback attempt?
Jones, Wieters, right fielder Nick Markakis and third baseman Manny Machado lead a solid nucleus of young position players, and the Orioles have an abundance of options in the pitching rotation. Jason Hammel, Chris Tillman, Zach Britton, Chen, Gonzalez, Jake Arrieta, Steve Johnson, Saunders and Brian Matusz are all candidates to be in the mix for starting jobs. In addition, former first-round picks Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman have the talent to move up the minor league chain in a hurry.
After Friday's loss, Orioles owner Peter Angelos dropped by the clubhouse to congratulate and console the Baltimore players and briefly address the media. Angelos delivered a message to the Yankees, who went a mere 12-11 against Baltimore this year after growing accustomed to having their way with the Orioles.
"I hope this is an indication that we mean business,'' Angelos said. "As far as the local team here is concerned, we just want to tell them, 'We'll be back next year.' They better get ready for us.''
Several Baltimore players were borderline misty over the thought of this fun-loving group dispersing for the winter. But parting ways was a little easier to accept with the knowledge that they'll reassemble in Sarasota, Fla., for spring training with a brighter outlook and heightened expectations.
"It hurts right now,'' said O'Day, "but I think we'll be remembered as the team that brought baseball back to the proud city of Baltimore. It's such a great fan base there and they're hungry for good baseball, and this is the team that raised that expectation again. We didn't end where we wanted. But I sure as hell think we're on our way.''