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BALTIMORE—Two years ago, a celebration like Sunday’s was hard to imagine. The Orioles were jumping around spraying champagne and beer and smoking cigars. After losing 110 games in 2021, the 2023 Orioles are in the postseason.
After their hard-fought 5-4 win in 11 innings over the Tampa Bay Rays at Camden Yards, the Orioles laughed and sang about their first playoff appearance since 2016. They began the celebration on the field after their walk-off win, saluting the fans who didn’t want to leave.
When Mike Elias took over baseball operations of the Orioles in November 2018, the team had lost a franchise record 115 games. Three years later, the Orioles were still far from contending.
Last season, the Orioles won 83 games, 31 more than they did in 2021. Now, they’re two games ahead of the Rays in the American League East. The Rays also qualified for the postseason on Sunday.
Strangely, the Orioles’ postseason berth was cinched in the ninth inning when the Texas Rangers lost to Cleveland, 9-2.
Elias, who’s getting credit for the remarkable turnaround, wanted to share it as he stood in the middle of the celebration.
“It’s hundreds of people,” Elias said. “There are people all over the organization. There are people who aren’t here anymore, including a lot of players that helped get us to this point. Dan Duquette, and his staff, some of the drafts that they had before I got here.
“There’s no way we do this in five years without having [Cedric] Mullins and [John] Means and [Anthony] Santander and those guys in the system already … We’re just getting started in what I think this team can do in the next several years and the next month-and-a-half.”
The Orioles split their four-game series with the Rays and hold a two-game lead with 13 games to play. Next comes a three-game series in Houston with the Astros, who are in a three-way battle for the American League West.
“It’s going to take me a while to process it, honestly,” a soaked manager Brandon Hyde said. “It’s [Justin] Verlander tomorrow.”
While Elias was part of a World Series-winning organization with the Astros in 2017 and Hyde with the Chicago Cubs a year earlier, this was their first as heads of an organization.
“We weren’t sure what to do,” Hyde said. “When you clinch a wild-card and you’re still playing for the division, what do you do? I’m not really sure. We ultimately decided that these guys have earned this. They need to be celebrated. They need to feel what this feels like.”
Dean Kremer, who started Sunday’s game and allowed just a run on two hits in five-plus innings, isn’t satisfied with what the team has achieved.
“The goal is not just to go to the postseason. It’s also to win the East,” Kremer said. “This is a big step in that direction. This is different than anything I’ve experienced. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a winner in the minor leagues, but this is different. This means so much more, and I know it does to everybody else in this group.”
For five years, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn played for the Kansas City Royals, a team that never reached .500, let alone the postseason. O’Hearn’s sacrifice bunt moved Adley Rutschman to third and set up Cedric Mullins’ game-winning sacrifice fly.
“I love this team,” O’Hearn said. “I want to do whatever I can for this team to help this team win, and if that means getting a bunt down in the 11th, then [heck] yeah.
“There’s been a lot of times when I didn’t think something like this was possible and I continued to work and tried to get better and better myself, not knowing if I was going to have an opportunity to play for a club like this. The way things turned out has been unbelievable. I feel so blessed. I’m elated to be a part of a group like this. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of awesome things in front of us.”
While Elias inherited top draft picks DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, his selection in his first draft in June 2019 was catcher Adley Rutschman, who scored the winning run on Sunday and had an important home run in the eighth and a game-tying RBI single in the 10th. He and O’Hearn also saved a run in the top of the ninth when O’Hearn fielded Jonathan Aranda’s ground ball at first and thew home to Rutschman, who tagged out Josh Lowe just before he touched the plate.
“It’s awesome. I didn’t know it would be like this,” Rutschman said. “It just shows how close they guys are. Guys are pulling for each other every day. They show up, day-in and day-out for the last seven months and just leading up to this is a lot of emotion. I know guys aren’t satisfied with this, but we’re going to celebrate this today.”
Rutschman came to the Orioles in May 2022. The Orioles immediately got better, and now, they’re in the playoffs.
“This team had high expectations for this year, and we’ve always kept it in-house,” Rutschman said. “Guys are just focusing on what we’ve got going on and not any outside noise or external distractions. Guys show up every day at the park ready to go.”
Hays is one of the few Orioles who played in the majors under the old regime.
“This is everything I could have imagined,” Hays said. “I wanted to celebrate this. I wanted to move onto this milestone, and we’re all getting to do it together.”
After Houston, the Orioles will play four games in Cleveland before coming home for six games to close the home season, two with Washington and four with Boston.
It won’t be easy for them to win the East, even though they hold the tiebreaker over the Rays. Tampa Bay has 11 games left, six with Toronto, three with Los Angeles and two against the Red Sox.
If the Orioles win the East, they’ll get five days off, get to set their starting rotation in a best-of-five-game series that would begin on October 7th. If they don’t win the division, they’ll need to play in the best-of-three wild-card series that starts on October 3rd.
Hyde is trying to keep his players focused on winning the division.
“I tried to say that, but I didn’t get much out,” Hyde said. “We have more celebrations to come. This isn’t the last one. We need to win to keep doing this. This is a lot of fun.”
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