BALTIMORE -- Ten Major League Baseball teams will clinch postseason berths in the final two weeks of the regular season, and the celebrations will run the gamut from garden-variety joyous to 1962 Faber College Delta House-caliber euphoric.
The St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers are annual visitors to this realm, so logic says their festivities will be a tad more muted. If the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners make the playoffs after extended postseason absences, they can be excused for cutting loose.
The 2014 Baltimore Orioles fall in the more raucous end of the spectrum. Yes, they’re only two years removed from the franchise’s last postseason appearance. But pardon them for acting like they haven’t been here before.
The O’s shed some historical baggage in 2012 when they reached the playoffs as a wild card. They took a much bigger step toward validation Tuesday night, beating the Toronto Blue Jays 8-2 to win their first American League East title in 17 years.
After Tommy Hunter retired Ryan Goins on a groundout to end the game, the Orioles donned goggles and helmet cams and sprayed each other with champagne in the home clubhouse before returning to the field to celebrate with the fans. Outfielder Adam Jones grabbed an orange Orioles flag, slapped hands with die-hards on a Ripken-esque tour of the park, and even got the grounds crew into the act. More than an hour after the final pitch, Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” played over the Camden Yards PA system and players mingled in foul territory with their wives and kids.
“We’ve been grinding our tails off, and now we get to release it,” Jones said. “Good things come when you work hard as a unit. This has been a long time coming for the city of Baltimore.”
It was a memorable night all-around for baseball in the Beltway. While the Orioles were wrapping up the division, the right-field scoreboard at Camden Yards showed the Washington Nationals beating Atlanta 3-0 to clinch the National League East title.
The Orioles won behind five occasionally harrowing innings from Ubaldo Jimenez, a $50 million free agent who’s been a major disappointment in his first season with the team. Fittingly enough, their eight RBIs were divvied up among Steve Pearce, Alejandro De Aza, Jimmy Paredes and Nick Hundley -- the type of unheralded supporting players who have played major roles in a season marked by potentially devastating injuries for the O’s.
Pearce, Baltimore’s first baseman, hit a three-run homer off Drew Hutchison to get things rolling in the first. After failing to establish himself in Pittsburgh, Pearce was signed three times and released twice by the Orioles since 2012 before emerging as a godsend in the lineup this season. He has a .541 slugging percentage and is tied for seventh in the AL with 5.5 wins above replacement (WAR).
Paredes, who is hitting .419 (13-for-31) since coming over from Kansas City in a cash deal in late July, launched a solo shot off Hutchison in the second inning.
And De Aza, acquired from the White Sox for two minor leaguers in late August, broke the game open with a three-run triple off Aaron Loup in the seventh. He’s hitting .333 (15-for-45) since joining the Orioles.
A festive crowd of 35,297 picked up the pace as the night progressed. Orioles fans incessantly booed Toronto shortstop Jose Reyes, who was involved in a spat with Baltimore catcher Caleb Joseph on Monday night, and there was some mild carryover from the hostilities when Loup hit O's right fielder Nick Markakis in the back with a fastball and Darren O’Day responded by plunking Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista in the posterior. But the ill will never boiled over enough to detract from the sense of inevitability at Camden Yards. The louder the fans got, the more the momentum built.
“I wish I had a camera taped to my chest to hear the crowd,” said Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty. “It was pretty surreal. This is a great sports city, and they love their two teams here. In the sixth, seventh and eighth, it was all building up to that ninth inning. To be able to win it here at home was pretty special.”
With the division title in the bag and the Angels most likely out of reach for the top AL seed and the home-field advantage it brings, the Orioles will probably spend the next two weeks letting injuries heal, getting their pitching in order, and trying to stay sharp in anticipation of the American League Division Series.
They have done an admirable job of protecting their home turf to reach this point. After going 19-21 in their first 40 games at Camden Yards, the Orioles have posted an MLB-best 29-8 record at home since late June. It’s been 2½ months since they lost two straight in Baltimore.
They’ve gotten here by cutting a swath through the American League East. The O’s are 42-23 against Boston, New York, Toronto and Tampa Bay this season.
And they have a flair for hitting big flies in abundance, no matter who is in the lineup. With two more home runs Tuesday, the Orioles lead the majors with 196.
This is how they roll. A team with a more fragile constitution might have had difficulty recovering from catcher Matt Wieters’ Tommy John surgery in June, Manny Machado’s season-ending knee surgery and the 25-game amphetamine suspension that will keep Chris Davis out of action for the rest of the regular season and a sizable chunk of the playoffs. The Orioles, taking their cue from manager Buck Showalter, simply aren’t built to take “no” for an answer.
“We’re a cohesive unit,” Jones said, “and we’ve got a strong-ass bond.”
Before the Orioles dispatched Toronto to wrap up the division title Tuesday, Davis made news by helping to lift a pickup truck and free a trapped motorist in response to an accident on I-295 near Baltimore. Several hours later, his teammates helped raise the spirits of a hard-core sports town that’s spent too much time looking up in the standings at the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays over the past decade and a half.
“This is what you train for in the offseason and why you put in the work -- to win the East,” Pearce said. “We did it tonight. It was all worth it. The ups and downs. Spring training. The struggles and the long hours and the doubleheaders. It was all worth it.”