Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 16, 2014

Buck And The O’s Are Denied, For Now

History is written by the winners, or so goes the old saw attributed to various great men from Napoleon to Churchill. If accounts are not always by them certainly most of the tales that last in our memories tend to be about them. So it is that the story of the American League Championship Series, indeed the story of the Great Game’s entire postseason so far, is that of the Kansas City Royals, and deservedly so.

Their 2-1 triumph over the Baltimore Orioles in Wednesday night’s Game Four completed a sweep of the ALCS, sending Kansas City to the World Series in the team’s first postseason appearance since 1985. The Royals are a perfect 8-0 in the playoffs, the longest unblemished record in a single postseason in major league history. When they opened the Game Four scoring with a pair of 1st inning runs without benefit of the ball ever leaving the infield, one could almost believe the notion that the Royals are a team of destiny, fated to never lose again until they hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy.

But lost in the focus on Kansas City’s sweep, forgotten in the recounting of Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain making circus catches in the outfield, or Mike Moustakas going into the stands to snare a ball, or Cain’s timely hitting or the shutdown pitching of the Royals bullpen, was the reality of just how extraordinarily close this series was. Game One went to extra innings. Game Two was tied going to the 9th. Both of the final two contests were decided by a single run. As routs go, this one teetered on a knife-edge from start to finish.

So while we wait for the World Series to start next Tuesday with the National League champion traveling to Kaufmann Stadium, let’s take a moment to recognize the team the Royals sent home for the winter on Wednesday eve. In the end Baltimore was outplayed in every facet of the game by Kansas City, but not by very much. For the Orioles and their fans, the disappointment of the moment should not diminish justifiable pride in an outstanding season.

The Birds reached the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, but the last time in 2012 was as a Wild Card. This time Baltimore won the American League East, the team’s first division championship since 1997. It was a title that the Orioles didn’t merely win, but ran away with. Their 96 wins were second best in the American League, and their 12 game margin over the second place Yankees was the fattest final division lead in the AL, second in the majors only to Washington’s 17 game NL East lead. Before meeting their demise at the hands of the Royals, the Orioles did a little sweeping of their own, dispatching the Tiger and Detroit’s rotation of Cy Young winners three games to none in the ALDS. All this from a team that began the season with only a 16% chance of making the playoffs according to the simulations run by Baseball Prospectus, the worst odds in the AL East.

After a stumbling start in which the O’s won their season opener and then lost four in a row, they gradually worked their way up the standings. A split of a twin bill against the Red Sox on July 5th was good enough to put them into first place, and the Orioles remained there for the balance of the schedule, gradually pulling away from New York and Toronto while far outdistancing Tampa Bay and Boston. They won despite having All-Star third baseman Manny Machado available for just half of their games and losing catcher Matt Wieters for the year back in the middle of May. Slugging infielder Chris Davis also did a stint on the disabled list, and then was served with a 25-game suspension in September for a failed drug test.

Every franchise has to deal with injuries over the longest season in sports, and how a team responds to adversity can define it. For the Orioles, every time a player went down someone else stepped up. Aside from Wieters, who played in just 26 games, not a single starter batted over .300, but the Orioles hit with great power. Led by Nelson Cruz’s 40 home runs, Baltimore lead the majors with 211 round-trippers. Pitchers stepped up as well. When Opening Day closer Tommy Hunter went on the DL in May, Zach Britton moved into the role and finished the season with 37 saves in 41 chances.

Much of the credit for the Orioles success has to go to manager Buck Showalter. Since he was hired with a little over two months to go in the 2010 season, the veteran Showalter has helped to rebuild a franchise that had grown use to losing 90 or more games each year. That’s been his pattern wherever he’s managed. He was named AL Manager of the Year in the strike-shortened 1994 season, when he guided the Yankees to first place before play was halted. The following year he took New York to the playoffs for the first time since 1981. In Arizona Showalter took the expansion Diamondbacks to the postseason in just their second year of existence. In Texas a second Manager of the Year Award came Showalter’s way in 2004 for his efforts at turning around the Rangers. He’s a serious contender for a third such award this season.

Despite his great success, what Showalter hasn’t done in 16 different seasons of making out lineup cards for four different major league franchises is guide a team to the World Series. At his previous stops that happened either immediately or very shortly after the sometimes prickly tactician moved on. In New York Showalter was replaced by Joe Torre, and the Yankees won four championships in the next five years. In Arizona he was fired after the 2000 campaign, and the Diamondbacks won the Series in 2001. The Rangers were up to second place in the AL West two years after Showalter departed, and made back-to-back World Series appearances another two years after that.

Like every team, the Orioles face important personnel decisions this off-season. They picked up Cruz at a bargain price last February after the slugger’s stock plummeted following a 50-game drug suspension. After a career year Cruz will be looking for a long-term deal, and Baltimore might be reluctant to offer that to a 34-year old player. Setup man Andrew Miller can probably command closer money from a number of other teams.

But the Orioles already moved this month to lock up J.J. Hardy, signing the shortstop to a three-year, $40 million dollar contract extension. They’ll next look to work out a restructured deal with outfielder Nick Markakis, their longest-tenured player. Add back a healthy Machado, and perhaps before the end of next season a return by Wieters from Tommy John surgery, and Baltimore looks capable of reprising their strong 2014 regular season performance.

As a player in the Yankees farm system, Buck Showalter never made it to the majors, in large part because he was a first baseman at a time when Don Mattingly held that spot in the Bronx. As a manager he’s proven his ability to turn teams into winners, but has yet to make it to the final contests of the year. As Kansas City’s remarkable October run serves to remind, there are many more surprises than sure things come the postseason. But Showalter seems to have found a comfortable home with the Orioles, a team that seems poised to contend for a while. Maybe Orioles Park at Camden Yards will be the stop in an already excellent managerial career where he finally makes it to the Series.

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