On Sunday, in Tampa Bay, the Orioles' season came quietly and sadly to an end. Yeah, the Birds aren't mathematically eliminated, but on the way to the wrong end of a four-game sweep, every Oriole's iPod shuffled to the fattest singing lady in their library. It was a fitting end to the Birds' 2013 season. They went out like a tree in a sparsely populated forest, as most of the city was watching the Ravens pound the Texans. The football game ended, and I flipped to MASN just in time to watch the Orioles go down in the ninth. It was an appropriately pathetic place for the season to end, Tropicana Field is Major League Baseball's unfinished basement, and the Rays' fans sent the Orioles off with a dirge played on vuvuzelas, a musical instrument designed to recreate the sound of groaning old plumbing.
To say they went out with a whimper would be an affront to whimpering; it was more like an onion fart through a fabric softener-filled paper tube. The Orioles came into the ninth, down 3-0 and eight innings removed from their lone lonely hit, Manny Machado's first-inning leadoff single, which was wiped out in a double play. The Birds' biggest guns, Adam Jones and Chris Davis, went out meekly to start the inning, then, after a two-out single by DH Danny Valencia, Wieters sent a soaring fly ball that plinked off of a rafter and dropped in quixotically for an RBI double. In brighter days, it would have been a magic moment, a baseball seduction sending Orioles fans hearts aflutter with visions of victory. This year, we knew better, it was a hit with all the romance of being offered a date through your car window at a Pulaski Highway traffic light. Not only did this season not really love us, it may not have been born a woman.
The next batter flied out to center, and that was that.
In truth, a win wouldn't have meant much, maybe a few more days of crossed fingers. The last shreds of hope were ripped from the Orioles two nights earlier. Leading up to the showdown in Tampa, the Orioles did what these Orioles do, they teased us with a string of victories, just enough to knock off some of the doubt and hint at a Wild Card berth, but it was never going to be enough. Going into that game, the Baltimore Orioles had played 9,353 regular-season games, but none as long as Friday night's crucible at the Trop. Last year's squad made history going 29-9 in one-run games and railing off a record 16-straight extra-inning wins. After six hours and 53 minutes, on the 593rd pitch of the game, the Orioles lost. They just weren't the same club when they showed up the next day, they were tired and they were beaten through to the core.
And so it goes, I'm taking a moment to mourn a 30th-straight season without a Baltimore World Series, well, maybe a week's worth of moments, and a lot of those moments are going to be flashbacks to Jim Johnson's nine blown saves. But after that, I'm gonna thank the Orioles for another hell of a season. They stayed in it until the last week of the season in the beastly AL East, and look to be earning their second-straight winning season. Two straight winning seasons is way better than those 14 straight losing ones, and while the club has some serious concerns going into the offseason-most notably in the starting rotation, at second base and DH, and, at least from most fans' points of view, closer, they've painted a pretty good picture of the future.
Going into next season, there's a lot to look forward to. Chicks dig the long ball, and the Orioles are comfortably leading the majors in homers. Chris Davis, with his Major League-best 52 home runs and counting, has gone from tantalizing to terrific. In addition to the big bat, he could earn his first Gold Glove this year and will be hard to ignore in the conversation for MVP. There isn't a first baseman in baseball the Orioles would trade him for, and at 27, he's just heading into his most productive years. Adam Jones, 28, and locked up through 2018, proved the wisdom of the $85.5 million contract extension he signed last year by repeating his breakthrough stats from last season and earning another All-Star trip, his third overall, and second in as many years. With Markakis and McLouth at the corners, the outfield looks solid across the board. There's still that hole at second base, but with Wieters still around for at least another year, catcher is a strength, J.J. Hardy continues to quietly kill it at short, and next year should be the one where Manny Machado really comes into his own. He's already the best fielding third basemen in the game, but expect his solid bat to become a true standout.
As to pitching, they still need a front-of-the-rotation starter, but Chris Tilman has been brilliant all year and looks like a standout number two. Scott Feldman has been a great pickup who I expect big things from next year. He's a free agent, but I expect the Birds to hang on to him. Throw in rookie phenom Kevin Gausman, who's got dominating stuff and is averaging better than a strikeout an inning and who could emerge as that top of the rotation guy in a few years, and they've got the makings of a solid staff. In relief, Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, and Brian Matusz have been phenomenal, and while Johnson's struggles have been heartbreaking (and a big part of the reason the Orioles will be skipping the postseason this year), the bullpen remains a strength.
Yeah, this weekend was a protracted punch in the gut, and the season has been a difficult one, missing the magic of 2012, but I for one had a blast. Here's hoping they land another top starter and a second baseman in free agency (Santa, can you bring me Robinson Canó?), but I'm looking forward to next season, and for now, it's still nice to be able to say that.