The Baltimore Orioles: A storied franchise that has not been a contender in over a decade. Their last postseason appearance was 1997, when Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Mussina were their stars. It's been a long time since the Baltimore faithful have had hope. Over the last decade and a half, the Orioles have tried to build a winner many different ways. They tried to spend money and go toe-to-toe with the Yankees and Red Sox to no avail. Then the organization tried to stockpile young talent and for years Orioles fans have heard about these highly touted pitchers and position players in their system.
The 2010 season began with the same low expectations that Orioles fans had become accustomed to. With a lot of these prospects finally on the big club roster, people had higher hopes, but the mood was still somber to start the season.
Over the first 105 games of that season, the Orioles went through two managers, with Dave Trembley starting the season 15-39 before being fired. Successor Juan Samuel stepped into a no-win situation and went 17-34 over the course of his short tenure. The Orioles were 32-73, in dead last in the AL East and 34.5 games back.
That's when things changed. Former Yankees and Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter was hired to change the culture of the Orioles. He had the daunting task of making the fans of Baltimore feel like they had hope again.
The difference with Showalter has been night and day. His Orioles are now a confident team that feel like they can win every game. In the 66 games since Showalter took over, he finished out the 2010 campaign with a 34-23 record and has managed the Orioles to an early 6-3 record to begin the 2011 season. At 40-26, his Orioles have played with a fire that was not witnessed before his arrival. The offense has been about the same, but it's the pitching staff that is finally turing the corner and making this team a playoff hopeful again.
Before Showalter managed his first game on Aug. 3 of last season, the team was hitting .256 and scoring 3.6 runs per game with an on-base percentage of .315 and a slugging percentage of .384. In the 66 games since, the team is hitting .259 with a .312 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of .385, averaging 4.1 runs per game. Again, those offensive numbers are glaring, but their run production is up, and they have been a better situational hitting team.
The Orioles' pitching has really been the difference with this team. They lost Brian Matusz, their talented young lefty, to the disabled list with a strained left intercostal muscle. However, he is apparently on the fast track to rejoin the team and a staff that is currently pitching very well to start 2011.
Before Showalter took over the team in 2010, the pitching staff had a bloated 5.18 ERA, a 1.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio, walked 5.6 batters per nine innings and allowed 1.2 home runs per game. Since then, including 2011's start, the staff has a 3.51 ERA, a 2.34 strikeout-to-walk ratio, walked only 2.8 per nine innings and allowed 1.1 home runs per game.
The Orioles are starting to make even the opposing American League East managers notice.
“I think that they have improved their club with the additions that they've made, and they played awful well the last two months of the season,” Joe Girardi said to the media before the first game of this week's three-game set. “Their young pitchers have obviously improved over the experience that they had last year, and they've played very well.”
The reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done for a once historic franchise. But they certainly are moving in the right direction, and a once great rivalry between the Yankees and Orioles may be reborn.