Last summer was a revival for Mid-Atlantic baseball. Going into the season the Orioles and Nationals were mired in long stretches of losing campaigns, and at least for the Orioles, the end to that futility didn’t seem close. The Nationals had some young promise with Bryce Harper waiting in the wings, and Stephen Strasburg leading a young pitching staff with potential, but even then many media members were expecting only minor improvement.
Well the year was a rounding success in Baltimore and in DC. The Nationals ended up with the best record in baseball, while the Orioles fought their way into the playoffs thanks to the introduction of the second wildcard. Their were plenty of positive story lines to throw around: the O’s clutch record in 1 run games and extra innings, the Nats brilliant pitching staff, the emergence of the young stars (Harper for DC, and Manny Machado for Baltimore), etc. The Orioles beat the Rangers in the wildcard game, before losing a hard-fought five game series to the Yankees. The Nationals lost a heartbreaking game five in DC to the St. Louis Cardinals after staying alive in the series the night before. Both teams looked a bit lost at times in the postseason, but still the seasons were more than most fans could have hoped for after 2011.
The offseason saw the Nationals hailed as the next great baseball dynasty, while the Orioles season had largely been called flukey. The Nats went out and got Dan Haren, Rafael Soriano, and Denard Span. The Orioles made very few moves, choosing instead to rely on in-house solutions. Spring training 2013 rolled around and just about everyone and their mother was picking the Nats to make an appearance in the World Series. The Orioles got largely mixed reviews. Many said they couldn’t repeat their luck in close games, and would fall back to earth because of their lack of pitching. Though the teams had different projections, both clubhouses were quite confident in their ability. Davey Johnson, going into his last year as Nats manager, proclaimed “World Series or bust,” while Orioles like centerfielder Adam Jones and manager Buck Showalter, talked about the unity and drive of the guys in their clubhouse.
Like with all sports, talk is cheap until proven on the field, or in this case diamond. The first three-quarters of the season could not have gone much more differently for the two clubs. The Nats crumbled under the pressure. They played sloppy D, they couldn’t score, and though the pitching staff was good at times, the bullpen often struggled. Guys like Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa got off to slow starts (Espinosa is now struggling in the minors), and the team couldn’t seem to find its identity. The Orioles on the other hand seemed to be proving people wrong. Chris Davis blasted his way into the MVP conversation by hitting towering home run after towering home run. If it weren’t for some guy named Miguel Cabrera, he would probably be a lock for the award. Manny Machado followed up a short rookie campaign with a torrid start highlighted by his ability to spray doubles all over the field, and make quasi-miraculous plays at third base. Jones put in the best start to any season of his career and yet found himself playing third fiddle. Where the Nats couldn’t score runs, the O’s were leading the majors in homers. Where the Nats D seemed to be making stupid errors, the O’s started historically error free. The O’s rotation was still shaky, and a bullpen that had been one of the best in baseball in 2012 was suddenly very hittable, but the Orioles were sticking around, as the Nats fell off the face of the earth.
Enter September. The homestretch. The Nats appeared to be completely out of it. The Braves had seemingly long ago run away with the division, and the torrid pace of the three Central teams (Pirates, Reds, and Cardinals) left them way off the wild-card pace too. The Orioles seemed poised for a September push that had been the norm during Showalter’s time at the team’s helm. With their fate in their hands they couldn’t ask for more.
The calendar turned and boom, the Nats came alive. An anemic offense all season, suddenly guys found their groove. Span extended his hitting streak to 23 games, second in club history to Zimmerman’s 30 game streak in spring of 2009. Speaking of Zimmerman, the guy has 8 homers in his last 10 games. Not too shabby. A team that looked all but out of it, the Nats suddenly have an outside chance (a very outside chance) of sneaking into the playoffs as they ended the evening 5.5 games back of the Reds. Tonight they completed a four game sweep of the Mets in New York, out homering them 13-0 in the process. Can you say caliente? There is not a team in baseball that wants to face these guys right now, and should they squeeze into October play, the swagger they have right now makes them a dangerous team. It may be too little too late for the Nats, but it appears as though they at least have some confidence for next season.
September has been much less kind to the Orioles. They came into the month third in their division and third in the wild card standings. And while they are still right there, they have failed to capitalize on almost every opportunity given them. Perhaps the only team in the AL race that has been worse than the O’s are the Rays, but the O’s still have made up almost no ground. The Yankees, those old decrepit Yankees whom everyone seemed down on, just finished taking 3 of 4 from the Orioles in Baltimore, including a heartbreaking loss tonight. After what looked to be shaping up as a good year for Baltimore and a bad one for New York, the Orioles find themselves 1.5 back of the Bronx Bombers, and 2.5 out of the wildcard with 16 games remaining. Last years stellar record in close games? Well forget about that. The O’s have one of the worst records in close games in the majors this year, not a good stat when playing important stretch baseball.
The biggest kicker is that the Nationals and Orioles finished with identical records tonight. 77-69 is the result of a 6 game win streak for the Nats and a 3 game skid for the O’s. After five months that saw the Nats in the baseball doghouse, while the Orioles seemed to be darlings again, the two clubs are in the same position: fighting for their proverbial lives. By no means are the Orioles out of it. They still have time, but they are gonna have to turn it around in a hurry. The Nationals are fighting every time they take the field right now, and though they aren’t mathematically out of it yet, they need to keep up their scorching pace and hope for some help from Cincinnati.
This year looks like it won’t end the way Davey Johnson envisioned with the Nats as World Champs. The Orioles look like they might not be making a return trip to the postseason. But both organizations are in a good place going forward, and compared to a couple of years ago, that’s a great thing to be able to say. Like it says up top, context. At least they aren’t tied for last.