No cause for disappointment in Baltimore
ST. PETERSBURG -- Once again, the Orioles' champagne party is going to have to wait.
The O's were deprived of their long-awaited celebration on Sunday when they nailed a Wild Card berth, then missed out again on Wednesday night, when their slim chance of winning the American League East went up in flames.
But shed no tears for this giddy band of overachievers. Applaud their Herculean achievement. They need not pop corks to celebrate this remarkable season.
The pitching-rich Rays stymied the Orioles in two of three season-ending games at Tropicana Field, punctuated by Evan Longoria's three homers on Wednesday night in a 4-1 win that sealed Baltimore's division chances.
Meanwhile, the Yankees clobbered the hapless Red Sox, 14-2, to complete a three-game sweep and propel New York to its 12th AL East title in 15 years.
Not only did Wednesday's jarring loss deprive the Orioles of the possibility of a one-game playoff for the division title had the Red Sox won, it sent them unexpectedly jetting to Arlington, Texas, where they'll face the Rangers on Friday night in the one-game Wild Card playoff.
The Orioles needed two wins at Tropicana Field to ensure that the Wild Card shootout would be played at Camden Yards, where their fans have been waiting since 1997 for a postseason game.
Those long-starved fans and the players should have celebrated on Sunday, but that was put on hold because the Orioles were flying to Florida before their Wild Card berth was official.
The O's trademark this season has been bouncing back from adversity; now they must put their disappointment aside and focus on the dazed Rangers, who lost the AL West title to the rampaging Athletics.
"Our guys are ready [for Texas]," said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter, whose masterful job of guiding this team cannot be overrated. "They have worked very hard to have this opportunity."
Showalter bristled when it was suggested that after losing two games to the Rays, his players may be left with an empty feeling. They arrived in Florida tied with the Yankees and emphasized how winning the division was their priority, then finished the season in second place, two games back.
"How empty is the feeling? [Not] at all," said Showalter. "Heavens no. We knew [winning] the game tonight and New York [losing at the same time] was a real long shot. [The phrase 'empty feeling'] doesn't even come close to describing our locker room right now. They're looking forward to the opportunity and heading down to Texas to play.
"It's a tough road however you do it. It's a challenge. We feel real good about the opportunity we've earned by being one of five teams from a pretty good league [in the postseason]. We shouldn't feel like Tampa Bay was picking on us. The people playing this time of the year, starting Friday, it's because of their pitching. That's a common denominator."
Center fielder Adam Jones, who played in every game this season, had a message for the fans.
"I know some people in Baltimore are frustrated, of course, because you want Camden Yards rocking," Jones said. "Hopefully, everybody in Baltimore, you go out to the bars, you go out to wherever you're going to watch the game. I'm pretty sure there's going to be a lot of people coming down to Texas; we need the support.
"Of course, we want to host a game in Camden Yards, but we've got a game in Texas on Friday that we really need to win in order to host a game at Camden Yards."
And did he have an empty feeling after Wednesday night?
"[Heck] no," he said. "We made a 24-game swing from what our prediction was, where we finished last year. The season has been unbelievable in terms of watching the growth of the guys, watching Showalter putting pieces of the puzzle together."
Future Hall of Famer Jim Thome, the Orioles' designated hitter, is a virtual father figure to the young players who've never tasted postseason baseball.
To him, not winning the division shouldn't leave an empty feeling, or even disappointment.
"Ultimately, the goal is to get in [the postseason]," Thome said. "Yes, absolutely, you want to win the division. I heard somebody say that the thing about winning the division is that a banner hangs up in your stadium, and that is a big thing.
"But the Cardinals didn't win the division last year and yet won the World Series. Really, the light at the end of the tunnel is all about the World Series.
"I don't think this is the end of the world. We're in [the postseason]. I've been on the other side. Going home and knowing you're not going to the playoffs isn't a good feeling. What I'm trying to say is, it's fun to know you're in, and we are."
It can be argued that the newly adopted one-game Wild Card playoff, MLB's version of Russian Roulette, is unfair. Teams battle for 162 games to reach the postseason, then risk going home for the winter after just one game.
"We could also win one game," argued Showalter. "I'm looking at our glass as half-full. We have an opportunity. It's there for us. That's what makes it so intriguing. It's not like they changed the rules on Oct. 1. It's about what the powers that be believe enhances the fans' love for our game. So be it."
Showalter kept the clubhouse doors closed longer than usual as he told his players how proud he was of them.
"Our guys have handled success very classy this year," he said. "I'm as proud of that as anything. They've been on both sides of this. If I know this group, they're going to do everything possible to have some longevity with this."
"We knew it was a long shot today. We ran into some really good pitching here. I have to tip my hat to [the Rays]. ... Look over there at what they've been able to do this year, win 90 games, and yet their season is over. It tells you what a fine line it is."
Reporters kept repeating how disappointing it is that the Wild Card game won't be played in Baltimore.
Showalter said the Orioles can still bring postseason ball to Baltimore with a victory over the Rangers.
And maybe pop some corks and finally have a big league celebration.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.