September 17th, 2023
BALTIMORE — Brandon Hyde called two of the Orioles’ veteran leaders — right-hander Kyle Gibson and catcher James McCann — into the manager’s office on Sunday morning. The team had wavered back and forth about how to react when Baltimore eventually clinched a postseason berth, so there was a discussion to be had.
The Orioles have larger goals (such as their first American League East title since 2014). But they also have a core of young players who had never been part of a champagne celebration in a big league clubhouse. They also have more experienced players — those who endured the club’s recent down years — who hadn’t been in one, either.
The consensus was this: If Baltimore clinched Sunday — which happened when Texas lost to Cleveland — and also won its series finale vs. Tampa Bay, then the party would be on.
This October, the Orioles are returning to the postseason for the first time since 2016. And after a thrilling 5-4 walk-off victory at Camden Yards, they let everybody know it.
“This is awesome,” said catcher Adley Rutschman, who looked around and soaked in his teammates’ enjoyment as the music blared inside Baltimore’s clubhouse. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this. But this is great.”
Games remaining (13): at HOU (3), at CLE (4), vs. WSH (2), vs. BOS (4)
Standings update: The Orioles (93-56) and the Rays (92-59) are in a tight race atop the AL East, with Tampa Bay two games back. However, should that gap tighten further, Baltimore owns the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series between the two teams, 8-5. The AL East champion is likely to earn the No. 1 seed in the AL, thus would not have to play in a best-of-three Wild Card Series and would instead head straight to a best-of-five Division Series.
Magic number for AL East: 12
There are various groups of Orioles players who have taken differing paths to this point — the former high Draft picks/top prospects (such as Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, Grayson Rodriguez), the early rebuild holdovers (Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander), the veteran additions (Gibson, McCann, Adam Frazier) and more.
Each has been critical to Baltimore’s consistency during the 2023 season. The O’s, who haven’t lost more than four straight games or been swept in 87 consecutive multigame series, have a roster that has meshed into an impressive team, one of the best in MLB this year.
And for that reason, the Orioles wanted to celebrate the first accomplishment on their lengthy list of goals.
“We could have clinched today and moved on and things don’t work out how you want to and you don’t get to do this once. I’ve seen it happen,” said the 35-year-old Gibson, who signed a one-year, $10 million deal to join Baltimore this past offseason. “So we wanted to celebrate and give these guys who have been here a taste of this.”
It’s sure been a long time coming.
At the end of the 2018 season, the Orioles underwent sweeping changes across the organization in an attempt to rebuild and replenish their depleted farm system. They hired Mike Elias as general manager and Hyde as manager. Elias, a former Astros assistant GM, brought in Sig Mejdal and Eve Rosenbaum to work on his staff.
From 2019-21, Baltimore unsurprisingly struggled at the big league level, going 131-253 over that span (a .341 win percentage). Things began to turn around in ‘22, when the team went 83-79 — its first winning campaign since 2016 — and stayed alive in the AL Wild Card hunt until the final week of the regular season before falling three games short of a postseason berth.
Outside of the organization, some were stunned by the Orioles’ rapid ascent.
“We set out to do a reboot of the way we did things and knew that it might take a long time, because baseball reboots do take a long time typically. Oftentimes, they don’t succeed and you have to start again,” team chairman/CEO John Angelos said. “I’m really happy for Mike and Brandon and Sig and all the entire team, the entire organization. The system they had, the philosophy paid off. And it paid off earlier than most people expected.”
Elias deserves a lot of credit. He and his front office have continually taken the right players in the Draft and made the right moves to strengthen Baltimore’s system, which led to its breakthrough 2023 campaign.
But as Elias celebrated alongside his players and various employees of the club, he was quick to dish out the credit to others.
“There are people all over the organization, there are people that aren’t here anymore, including a lot of players, that helped get us to this point,” Elias said. “[Former GM] Dan Duquette and his staff, some of the Drafts that they had before I got here, there’s no way we do this in five years without [that].”
As recently as this past offseason, there were external doubters, people who thought the Orioles didn’t make enough big moves to take the next step. Mathematical systems expected them to instead take a step back, such as FanGraphs’ ZiPS, which pegged them for 80 wins.
“We were disrespected, honestly, going into this year, just from where we were from projections, smart people thinking they know what the records are going to be at the end of the year,” Hyde said. “I thought we were underappreciated. Everybody thought that we were going to have a setback this year, and I wanted our players to be offended by that a little bit.”
Whether the Orioles used it as motivation or not, they came to Spring Training confident of what they could achieve. Those new to the club (such as Gibson and McCann) repeatedly praised the amount of talent they saw in the clubhouse.
Baltimore went 19-9 over the first month of the season, seized the AL East lead in mid-July and hasn’t looked back amid its march to October.
“For us, we had high expectations,” Rutschman said. “But baseball is such a game of longevity and we play 162 games, so you’ve got to have energy for every one of them. And this team brings it day in and day out. They find a way.”
The Orioles still have high expectations. They want to win the AL East. They want to go on a deep run through the postseason. They want to win the franchise’s fourth World Series championship.
They’re not putting a ceiling on what they’re capable of. And they’re certainly not surprised about where they’re at, even if others are.
“I knew every guy in here was just a winner,” Henderson said.
“We knew in Spring Training. That was talked about then, when everyone was sleeping on us,” Rodriguez said. “So right now, we’re trying to wake the world up.”
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