BALTIMORE (AP) — It would be a shame if the Baltimore Orioles allowed their final four games to overshadow what they accomplished during the previous 165.
By getting past the disappointment of being swept by the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series, the Orioles can savor their first division title since 1997, finishing tied for the second-best record in the majors and dismissing the Detroit Tigers in the opening round of the playoffs.
Most important, the Orioles further distanced themselves from that miserable, franchise-record run of 14 straight losing seasons from 1998 through 2011.
“I think expectations have risen a little bit in Baltimore, and that’s good,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “My expectations have risen because I’m going to come back in spring training and get ready to go, ready to get back to this position because it’s great to be in the ALCS.”
After reaching the playoffs in 2012 and winning 85 games last year, the Orioles went 96-66 and easily won the AL East before defeating three straight Cy Young Award winners in a three-game sweep of Detroit in the AL Division Series.
Baltimore then fell to the Royals, who won the first two games in their final at-bat before squeezing out a pair of 2-1 wins in Kansas City to end the Orioles’ bid to reach the World Series for the first time since 1983.
The sweep did not, however, tarnish what Baltimore did in 2014 despite playing most of the season without injured starters Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and going the final 24 games without slugger Chris Davis, who was suspended for using Adderall, an amphetamine banned by Major League Baseball without a prescription.
Steve Pearce shed his usual backup role to contribute 21 of Baltimore’s major league-leading 211 home runs, and the Orioles got key contributions from three rookies — second baseman Jonathan Schoop, catcher Caleb Joseph and right-hander Kevin Gausman. Baltimore also capitalized on several shrewd moves by executive vice president Dan Duquette, notably the signing of free agent Nelson Cruz and the late-season acquisition of reliever Andrew Miller.
Until running into a Royals team that seemingly could do no wrong, the Orioles didn’t lose four in a row since May and went since June 28-20 without dropping successive games at home.
“We got some good things done,” said manager Buck Showalter, perhaps the most significant figure in Baltimore’s turnaround the past three years. “We reminded the country what a great baseball city and city in general Baltimore is. I feel good about that.”
By the time spring training starts, Wieters will have recovered from elbow ligament replacement surgery to assume his role behind the plate, Machado will be back at third base following knee surgery and Davis will have only game left to serve on his suspension.
It is likely that right fielder Nick Markakis will sign a new deal, even if the team chooses not to exercise the $17.5 million option on the contract that expires after the World Series.
But the status of Cruz, who led the majors with 40 homers and topped the team with 108 RBIs, is in up in the air. He came at a bargain for one year at $8 million, and it’s going to take a lot more to keep him.
“No doubt, I want to come back,” he said. “I love this clubhouse. I love all my teammates. The whole organization is great. Even the guys you don’t see every day, I appreciate that.”
If Orioles owner Peter Angelos won’t open his wallet wide enough to retain Cruz, the Orioles can capitalize on youth in 2015. Zach Britton will be able to build on his first season as a closer, and Bud Norris is the only member of the starting rotation who will celebrate his 30th birthday before opening day.
The rotation will be even better if Ubaldo Jimenez can rebound from a horrid season after signing a $50 million, four-year deal in February.
Duquette began the process of building for next season by signing two-time Gold Glove shortstop J.J. Hardy to a three-year contract the day before the ALCS began. Not long after making the final out against the Royals, Hardy hoped the letdown of having the season end would ultimately be supplanted by the high of getting that far.
“Right now, it’s frustrating,” he said. “But a week from now, when we sit down and think about it, I think there will be a lot of positive things to take from this.”
Said Jones: “It’s been an unbelievable year. Obviously, we want to continue. But to get this far with this group of men has been an honor.”
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)