BALTIMORE — Having already gotten this far against all odds, the Baltimore Orioles aren’t about to let another key injury and the pressure of being in a pennant race deter their effort to secure a postseason berth for the first time since 1997.
With 22 games left in the regular season, the Orioles trail the New York Yankees by one game in the AL East and are a game up in the wild-card race. It’s rather heady stuff for a team that finished in last place in each of the past four years, part of a run of 14 successive losing seasons.
No one expected them to be pressing the Yankees in July, let alone September, so why should the Orioles get nervous now?
“We’re a loose bunch of guys because people picked us not to be here,” said closer Jim Johnson, whose 42 saves are a key to Baltimore’s success. “So it’s easy to relax and just play a game and just do what we’re capable of doing. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing all year.”
The Orioles have overcome the stigma of a losing culture and a myriad of injuries to become of the most surprising teams of 2012. Sixteen different players have gone on the disabled list, including staff ace Jason Hammel, who recently rejoined the starting rotation.
Even worse, manager Buck Showalter has already lost three leadoff hitters to injury – Nolan Reimold, Brian Roberts and now Nick Markakis, who broke his left thumb Saturday when hit by a pitch from New York’s CC Sabathia.
Since being moved atop the batting order, Markakis was batting .335 over 54 games. Baltimore won 33 of them. The right fielder also won a Gold Glove last year.
Markakis waited his entire career to be part of a postseason run, and now he’s got to watch from the dugout. The Orioles have every intention of pressing on without him, knowing he might be back in action if they can continue to play into October.
“It’s disappointing to lose a guy like Nick,” reliever Kevin Gregg said. “He means a lot to this team and what he’s done for us, especially in the leadoff spot since coming back. But luckily we’ve had 35 guys contribute to this team in significant ways. Hopefully we have the same ability to step up the rest of the way.”
This isn’t the first trip to the disabled list for Markakis this season; he missed all June to repair a broken bone in his wrist. The Orioles survived his absence then, and fully intend to do it again.
“It all contributes to thoughts this team has about itself going forward,” Gregg said. “Every team has injuries, every team has to deal with players going down. The teams that stay in it are the ones that make the adjustments and have guys step up.”
Signed to a minor league contract on May 18, Ford homered and drove in two runs in Saturday’s 5-4 win over New York. McLouth, signed as a minor leaguer in June, has a .346 on-base percentage in 33 games and appears to be the new choice at the leadoff spot.
Sure, the Orioles are better team with Markakis in the lineup. But they’re still pretty good without him.
“You’ve got to look at as an opportunity,” Showalter said. “It’s like in the movie Apollo 13, the great scene where they say, ‘This has a chance to be a terrible disaster,’ and the guy who runs the control room says, ‘No, I think it’s got a chance to be our finest moment.’ That’s the way you have to look at it. You’ve got a chance for someone else (to excel). It’s kind of what this club’s been about all year.”
And that is precisely why the Orioles dismiss the notion that they’re going to wilt under the pressure of being in the middle a pennant race. To the contrary, they’ve been waiting years for this kind of opportunity. After splitting four games with New York over the weekend, Baltimore’s next challenge is a three-game series with the contending Tampa Bay Rays that begins Tuesday.
“This is what it’s about. This is fun. This is baseball,” center fielder Adam Jones said.
Johnson, who’s been an Oriole since 1996, was asked this weekend if it was fun playing the Yankees for first place in baseball’s toughest division.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Being where we are in the standings and knowing where we can be at the end of the year, after having so many (lousy) teams and losing seasons, yes. We’ve been on the awful side of being stomped in blowout losses in September, looking for football season to start and all that. So obviously we’re enjoying this.”