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A Eulogy for the 2010s Oriole Magic

On October 12, 2012 I wrote two Facebook statuses from my Blackberry (it was a different time) immediately after a 3–1 Game 5 loss to the Yankees in the AL Division Series. In the first status, I talked about how the 2012 season made me happy to be a fan of a team like the Orioles, rather than the Yankees, because I could appreciate a season that didn’t end in a championship. I could watch a team lose in the playoffs and still look back at the season with happiness because I had seen how much worse it could be in the years prior. Now, almost six years later, I’m looking back on this Golden Age of Oriole Magic and feeling much the same way. Would a World Series title have been great? Of course, but I will always look back at this era fondly.

The story of this resurgent era in Baltimore really began back in July 2010 when the team chose Buck Showalter to replace Juan Samuel as the manager of a young, underperforming team. Two days before the trade deadline, and the team was 32–73 without much hope for the rest of the season. The team was bound for its 13th straight losing season (a streak that would run to 14 the following year). Showalter brought a new energy to the team that propelled them to a 34–23 finish. A 96 loss team rarely brings much hope, but the 57 game stretch under the new skipper felt different; like things were finally going to turn around. This team had former top prospects Adam Jones and Matt Wieters ready to take the next step, a somewhat proven star still on the rise in Nick Markakis, young exciting starting pitching with Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, and Chris Tillman each throwing over 50 innings, and took a Miami High School shortstop with the 3rd overall pick in the draft who gave the fans something to dream about.

2011 was a step back to the norm: another 93 losses, a disaster of a starting rotation with those 4 “exciting” young starters all finishing with ERAs over 5, and a bullpen that wasn’t much better. There were a few important developments in 2011 that would help change the course of the franchise though. It started in the offseason when the team traded 2 relievers (one who never saw the majors, and one who probably never should have) for JJ Hardy, a legitimate power hitting shortstop who played plus defense and just needed a second chance. Next was a move that occurred on July 30 when the team traded their 36 year old closer, Koji Uehara (who was having a monster year and would continue to be very effective until age 40) for Tommy Hunter and a power hitting first base prospect the Rangers had grown tired of waiting for, Chris Davis. The final big moment from 2011 was not a transaction, but an emotional comeback win on the last day of the season. With the Red Sox collapsing in a pile of fried chicken and beer they went to Camden Yards for the last series of the season looking to get the ship righted and the team into the playoffs. They seemed to have everything taken care of with the Rays losing to the Yankees and a 2 run lead in the 9th inning, but the Orioles fought back after the first two batters struck out to get a walkoff single from Robert Andino off Jonathan Papelbon. The fans went wild, Buck was proud of his guys, and the team had some momentum going into 2012.

The 2012 season was where Oriole Magic returned. This team made no sense; guys like Wilson Betemit, Taylor Teagarden, and Nate McClouth had walkoff hits during the season. Lew Ford and Joe Saunders had contributions late in the season. They beat the Red Sox in a 17-inning, 6-hour May 6th game where Chris Davis pitched 2 innings and they cut down the winning run in the 16th with a relay play at the plate. They were winning close games at an incredible rate, finishing the year 29–9 in 1-run games and 16–2 in extra innings.

McClouth’s walkoff gave us this deliriously fun picture

Adam Jones kept them grinding every day. Nick Markakis was his quiet productive self until a wrist injury in September broke all of our hearts. Wieters and Mark Reynolds had identical 107 OPS+, and Chris Davis found his consistent HR stroke (33 total, including 7 in a 6 game streak in the last week of the season). The starting pitching wasn’t anything to write home about, but new additions Wei-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel, the ready-for-the-big-stage-now Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez were good enough to get games to the deep, shut-down bullpen. JJ Hardy won his first of 3 straight Gold Gloves and their biggest mid-season addition was 20 year old Manny Machado. He learned to play third base a week before getting called up and was an immediate force on both sides of the ball.

Manny was a superstar defender from day 1.

This team was all of our collective team as O’s fans because everyone doubted them the ENTIRE season. Analysts were predicting this “scrappy bunch” would run out of gas by September because you can’t play with fire like this all season and have it keep working. I can’t tell you how many people asked me “Are the Orioles actually for real?” throughout the 93-win season. They just kept proving people wrong and played in the first-ever American League 1 game Wild Card Playoff. There they beat a heavily favored Texas Rangers team that had just been to back-to-back World Series. Losing a tough 5 game division series to the Yankees was heartbreaking, especially after the Raul Ibanez Game (the second of 2 games in that series I attended), but this was an unmitigated success. Baltimore baseball was fun and hopeful for the first time in 15 years.

2013 is often overlooked from an Orioles fan perspective because the team missed the playoffs, Manny Machado injured his knee in the season’s final week, and they traded Jake Arrieta just in time for him to become awesome elsewhere. This certainly was not a lost season though, as the team won another 85 games. Manny hit 51 doubles and won the Platinum Glove and Chris Tillman announced himself as the team’s de facto ace. I switched over Blackberry to IPhone and hopped on my brother’s MLB package so I could watch every game during dinner, out of sight from my then-girlfriend, now-wife. But this season was most notable for Chris Davis turning in one of the best power seasons in baseball history. Two players in history have had at least 53 homers and 42 doubles in the same season: 2013 Chris Davis and 1921 Babe Ruth. Yeah it’s that kind of list.

We forget how amazing prime Crush was. This is what it looked like

The following year brought some expectations for an Orioles team that was not used to that. They’d start the season with Machado on the DL, but they looked better than 2013 from day 1. The tone was set on Opening Day when new, scrap heap acquisition Nelson Cruz hit the deciding HR to beat the Red Sox 2–1 (he would hit a bunch more). The season seemed to just build and build from there.

Every time there was any sort of hiccup, this team responded. Jim Johnson was no longer around to close games out so they started out with a shaky Tommy Hunter as the closer. When he had his struggles they turned a possible weakness into a major strength by handing over the closing role to groundball god Zach Britton. Manny would injure his other knee in August to cut his season short once again, but other guys in the lineup stepped up to replace his production. Adam Jones was top 15 in MVP voting for a 3rd straight season, Cruz led the AL in Home Runs, Markakis kept churning out hits and playing excellent defense. Chris Davis struggled throughout the season to hit for average and eventually got suspended for the playoffs. The surprise star of the team picked up the slack though. Steve Pearce changed teams 6 times in less than a year between 2011 and 2012 and had a very minor role with the 2013 O’s. The team even released him for 2 days in April of 2014, but he would be back and end up leading the team in WAR (5.9) and OPS (.930) splitting 102 games between first base and left field.

The 2014 campaign would also see O’s fans get their first full time taste of Jonathan Schoop and Kevin Gausman. Schoop was very visible to O’s fans as he came up through the minors as he was alongside his double play partner and good friend Manny Machado at every level. Where Manny seemed pretty polished from the get-go, Schoop was as raw as they come. An enormous 6’1″ 225 for a second baseman with a strong throwing arm and tons of power, he excited plenty in the organization. He also appeared to have never seen a pitch he didn’t want to swing at. His rookie slashline of .209/.244/.354 was not winning any awards, but he did hit 16 home runs, with 11 Defensive Runs Saved in 137 games. Gausman had appeared in 20 games mostly out of the bullpen in ’13, but was a full time starter in his full rookie campaign. After only making one major league start before June 7, the former number 4 overall pick in the draft ended up pitching to a 2.87 ERA in 5 September starts and gave up 1 earned run in 8 playoff innings out of the bullpen.

I think I speak for most Orioles fans when I say I loved the hell out of this team, but I kept expecting a run from the Yankees late in the season. However, the most exciting moment for Yankee fans in 2014 was when the already-clinched Orioles’ 9th best relief pitcher grooved Derek Jeter a fastball to give him a walk off hit in his last at bat in Yankee Stadium. The Orioles won 96 games and the division by 12 games. On September 16th when the team clinched the division, I stayed up watching the celebration for at least an hour.

Pure happiness

I texted my dad and my brother throughout saying things like “check out Markakis’s face! He looks so happy and relieved! I love this guy”. We wanted to savor this moment because we knew it was not something an O’s fan could take for granted.

Even after this somewhat dominant regular season, the O’s were prohibitive underdogs in the Division Series against a Tigers team that featured Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and David Price in the starting rotation (4 guys who had won, or would win Cy Youngs in their careers). The O’s got to them and their bullpen though and swept the series. The unquestioned highlight of the series, and maybe the season, was a Game 2 go-ahead 3 run double by Delmon Young(!) in the 8th inning after trailing 6–3 to start the inning. I was driving and pulled my car over as this inning started to get interesting because I needed to watch as it unfolded, not just listen.

JJ Hardy scores the third run on Young’s double. Exuberance on the faces of Pearce, Showalter, and Russell.

The ALCS against the Royals was a frustrating series, a 4 game sweep decided by 6 total runs. I’ll believe the O’s were the better team until the day I die, but that Royals team, like their entire 2014–2015 run, seemed to catch every break.

2015 was very similar to 2013 in that the team success didn’t back up the previous season, but they had some fun individual seasons. They finally got a full healthy season from Machado, who’s 51 2013 doubles turned into 35 2015 home runs, and he played stellar third base defense as always. Chris Davis bounced back to lead the AL with 47 homers. The bullpen group of Britton, O’Day, Brach, and Matusz were fantastic once again, but the starters struggled for most of the season, most notably Chris Tillman with a 4.99 ERA as the team’s “ace”. They finished the year at 81–81, but they had lost Nick Markakis and Nelson Cruz from the 2014 team and that really hurt the team’s chances.

We didn’t know it at the time, but 2016 would be the last hurrah for this era of Orioles baseball. The offense was anchored by Machado and his 6.9 WAR. However, it was a balanced attack that produced 253 home runs as a team, including a league leading 47 from the newly acquired Mark Trumbo, the fourth straight season an Oriole would lead the league. The starting rotation was largely ineffective other than Gausman and Tillman (119 and 114 ERA+ respectively). The bullpen was not just great in 2016 though, it was historic. Mychal Given was finally a full time major leaguer with a 3.13 ERA in 74.2 innings. Vance Worley gave the team a lot of big innings as a long man, and Donnie Hart came up for the second half to give up 1 run in 18.1 innings as a lefty specialist. Brad Brach was a dominant setup man with 10 wins, a 2.05 ERA, and an All Star appearance. The star was Zach Britton though, who had quite possibly the best season for a relief pitcher in Major League history. If you believe relievers should be allowed to win the Cy Young, then there is no argument against Britton winning the AL Cy Young in 2016: 67 innings in 69 appearances, 4 earned runs allowed (0.54 ERA), 0.836 WHIP, and no dominant seasons from any AL starters. He finished 4th in the voting, behind 3 starters with ERAs over 3.

The unfortunate thing about the 2016 season is the lasting image that remains is of the final moments of the season, Buck’s most questionable moment as Orioles manager. The team made it to the playoffs as the second wild card and battled the Blue Jays in a game marred by the ever-so-classy Jays fans throwing a full beer can at O’s fan favorite Hyun-Soo Kim in left field. As the game went into extra innings, it became clear that the O’s couldn’t let this game end without getting their superstar reliever into the game. Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened. After Givens, Hart, Brach, and O’Day battled in and out of trouble for 5.2 shutout bullpen innings, Brian Duensing started the 11th with a strikeout and Buck came out to make a change that had to be Britton coming in. No? Ok maybe we get the much-hyped rookie who’d been solid as a reliever and starter all year, Dylan Bundy, still no. He signals for Ubaldo Jimenez, one of the worst Free Agent signings in O’s history. The guy who had just finished his 3rd disappointing year with the team and had a 5.44 ERA during the regular season in 29 games (25 starts). I don’t think there was a single Oriole fan who had any confidence at this point, and that vast majority was proven 100% correct. Ubaldo gave up singles to Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson before Edwin Encarnacion left zero doubt about the last pitch of the season with a walkoff home run. 3 batters, all reach base, season over, Britton still sitting in the pen waiting.

Wieters’ heartbreaking last moments as an Oriole will forever be immortalized in this clip

The end of that 2016 season was the end of this incarnation of the O’s as a legitimate contender. 2017 saw another productive season from Machado (even after a very slow start), a late season trade that gave the team a spark by acquiring Tim Beckham, and the breakout of rookie Trey Mancini. Jonathan Schoop turned into a superstar (12th in MVP voting), and we got a full season of Dylan Bundy as a starter (with mixed results). The team never felt like they were totally for real and they faded aggressively in September to finish 75–87. Matt Wieters was gone, Davis struggled once again, and JJ Hardy was mostly injured and a shell of his former self even when healthy. The O’s we knew and loved were fading away.

2018 turned into something no Orioles fan ever wanted to have to deal with. It was a long goodbye tour for Manny Machado. Once it became clear this was not a team that had any chance at the postseason (very early on) we knew it was just a matter of time before this once-in-a-generation talent would be traded away for pennies on the dollar. As it turned out, his last game in an Orioles uniform was the All Star Game, a game that had a very weird graduation type feel to it because we all knew he’d be traded before the team returned from the break. What we didn’t expect was the trades of Gausman, Schoop, Britton, Brach, and O’Day as the deadline neared.

Some people are frustrated with the direction that the franchise has taken since 2016 and that’s totally understandable. Others are happy that they are at least going all out with the rebuild instead of trying to do it halfway (I fall in this camp). I think we would all have rather the team let Davis walk and worked out a deal early on with Machado and Schoop to keep some of the young superstars of the Buck Showalter-era O’s. Either way, July 31, 2018 marked the official end of this era. Less than 4 years since the team won 96 games and the AL East by 12 games, only 3 players remained.

My second facebook post from October 12, 2012 was my show of appreciation for the first O’s team to make the playoffs in 15 years. I thanked the entire 25-man roster by first name because they had brought me so much joy. Now, with the this era clearly in the rearview mirror, I just want to say thank you. Thank you to our leader, Buck. Thank you to the headliners: AJ, Manny, Markakis, JJ, Schoop, Wieters, Crush, and Trumbo. I appreciate every huge bullpen appearance we got out of Britton, O’Day, Brach, Matusz, and Hunter. The often complained about starting rotation including Tillman, Chen, Gausman, Bundy, Miguel Gonzalez, and Ubaldo gave us everything they had, and that was enough most of the time. To the easy to forget guys like Cruz, Pearce, Flaherty, McClouth, Caleb, Hammel, and Jim Johnson, I salute you. It’s easy to get caught up in what the O’s are day to day now in 2018 and be frustrated. Sometimes it’s nice to look back on the 2012–2016 O’s and appreciate them for all the joy they brought me and so many others.

Follow me on twitter: @denack31 and check out Pop Flies and Grounders (@pfgrounders) at pfgrounders.blubrry.com and iTunes for our latest podcast.

Denis Ackermann

Stevens Tech '12 | "No pitcher would be worth a darn without a catcher who could handle the hot fastball." -Casey Stengel | Twitter: @denack31

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