By Steve DeClue
The Baltimore Orioles loss in Game 5 of the ALDS to the New York Yankees brought about a lot of disappointment, but those feelings quickly turned to pride and admiration for many fans.
The Orioles were expected to be among the worst teams in all of baseball this year. Virtually everyone projected the team to lose more than 90 games and once again finish in last place in the American League East. It was considered yet another rebuilding season, and many weren’t particularly high on the club’s hire of Dan Duquette as GM.
Duquette had been out of Major League Baseball for more than 10 years, and many wondered how he could possibly return and be effective after such a long layoff. Many of Duquette’s offseason moves were mocked by baseball analysts, but the GM ultimately had the last laugh.
Instead of spending a ton of money on top-notch, free agent relievers, Duquette invited a ton of veterans to spring training to compete for a spot in the bullpen. He employed a similar strategy with the starting rotation. The result was a lot of intense competition and more depth in the minor leagues, meaning the team could better overcome injuries or ineffectiveness at the major league level.
Manager Buck Showalter’s clubs always showed massive improvement in his second full season, and his attention to detail and don’t-back-down-from-anyone attitude won over the players. They were no longer intimidated by the Yankees and Red Sox, or any other team in baseball.
Showalter’s magnificent handling of the pitching staff, whether it be the starters or relievers, allowed the Orioles to set records for highest winning percentage all-time in one-run games as well as consecutive extra-inning victories.
Several players who were acquired in trades or in free agency by Andy MacPhail and Duquette suddenly blossomed.
Chris Davis was always considered a player with a lot of potential, but high strikeout rates and poor pitch selection finally caused the Texas Rangers to run out of patience with him. His contact rate jumped this year, as did his home run and RBI totals. He is still too much of a free swinger and prone to long slumps, but he can also carry the entire offense for a week at a time.
Nate McLouth was acquired after the start of the season by Duquette and spent much of the season in Triple-A. He finally got the call to the major leagues but was nothing more than a reserve outfielder until Nick Markakis went down with an injury. McLouth stepped in and gave the team a spark with his tremendous defense, speed on the basepaths and power at the plate.
Miguel Gonzalez was toiling away in the Mexican League when one of Duquette’s scouts recommended the club sign him. He spent a good part of the season in Triple-A as a swingman before getting the call to the big leagues as a reliever. After impressive stints out of the bullpen, the O’s stretched him out into a starter and became a reliable piece in the rotation.
Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty had to stay on the roster for the entire season to remain with the O’s, which didn’t seem to be a big deal because the club wasn’t expected to be very good. However, when the team started playing well and battling for the playoffs, there were times when it looked like the roster spot might be too valuable to retain Flaherty. The club found a way to hold onto him, and he hit some big home runs as his playing time increased late in the year with Robert Andino’s struggles at the plate.
Adam Jones was acquired by the O’s a few years ago in a trade with the Mariners and emerged this year as one of the best players in baseball. His decision to sign a contract extension with the club showed his commitment to the team and to bringing a winner back to Baltimore.
It was a magical season, a year in which the Orioles defied all the odds and ultimately showed that they are on the right track. The club has a lot of young talent at both the major and minor league level that is set to make a big impact in future years, and the Orioles are suddenly a team to be reckoned with in the AL East.
Steve DeClue is a freelance writer covering all things Baltimore Orioles. His work can be found on Examiner.com.