In the weeks before the start of the 2023 baseball season, the wise guys in Vegas applied all of their massive computing capacity and — no doubt — the best AI platforms available and came to the conclusion that the Baltimore Orioles would win 77 regular-season games this year.
On April 24th, the day Dean Kremer defeated Chris Sale and the Red Sox for his team’s seventh straight victory and 15th win in the season’s first 22 games, the sports gambling site, FanDuel, posted the odds against the O’s winning the American League East at 50-1.
Obviously, the only real wise guys were in the Orioles’ front office, where executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and his staff were not resting on their minor league laurels. They still were making all the right moves while manager Brandon Hyde was pushing all the right buttons in the early stages of a season that bloomed into one of the most exciting and entertaining in Orioles history.
I guess we can cut the Vegas guys a little slack. The Tampa Bay Rays had opened the season 13-0 and were 20-3 after the games of April 24th, but the Orioles were only 4 ½ games behind them, and it had to be apparent by that time that the Orioles were no 50-1 longshot.
The oddsmakers obviously thought that the O’s would have to win 100 games to win that division and, seriously, who really could have predicted that on Thursday night, with a razor-close 2-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox, they would do just that?
For once, when the first microphone was shoved into the first champagne-soaked face that couldn’t resist the urge to say that “nobody believed we could do this but the guys in this clubhouse,” it was probably true.
Didn’t have to wait long for that, though it actually happened down the hall from the clubhouse celebration at manager Brandon Hyde’s postgame press conference.
“We won 83 games last year, and that was kind of the message in spring training, we’re going to build off those 83’’ said Hyde, who appeared to be shedding some tears as he joined the on-field celebration moments after the game. “And we’re not surprising any teams anymore. People knew how talented we were, but nobody was giving us a chance to win. It was in every publication everywhere that we were going to regress and we wanted our guys to know that … and we took it personally and we just won 100 games and the AL East.”
Indeed. the Orioles developed a winning chemistry during their respectable 2022 season and perfected it during a ’23 season during which they lost key players Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins and Félix Bautista for extended periods and didn’t miss a beat.
There were the occasional moments of doubt, of course, like when they lost the first two games of that critical final head-to=head series against the Rays and fell into a virtual first-place tie, but they stormed back to snap a four-game losing streak and split the four-game series to re-establish a two-game lead.
The loss of Bautista to a damaged elbow ligament in August left a huge hole in the bullpen, which seemed close to a breaking point as the O’s entered the final two weeks of the season in the midst of a 17-game stretch without an offday. But just when the bullpen most needed relief from the starting rotation, Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez and Kyle Gibson stepped up with a series of long outings to give several spent relievers a chance to catch their breath.
The terrific September return of left-handed ace John Means certainly didn’t hurt, either.
There was Orioles magic everywhere you looked. The O’s equaled the franchise record for road wins and seemed more comfortable winning by one run than 10. They were one of baseball’s best comeback teams and remain in the midst of an amazing – and ongoing — string of 91 series without being swept that dates back to early last season.
And if all that good news wasn’t enough on this night of champions and champagne, the Orioles also thrilled a ballpark full of title-hungry fans with the announcement that CEO John Angelos and Maryland governor Wes Moore have reached agreement on a new lease that will keep the O’s playing at Camden Yards for at least the next 30 years.
The deal brought an end to years of civic angst over the club’s future in Baltimore and just added to the euphoria that engulfed Oriole Park on a night that the Orioles put the final stamp on their dominance of the American League East and their first division title since 2014.
In what was considered to be the sport’s strongest division at the start of the season, the Orioles entered their final regular-season series against the Red Sox with winning records against all four AL East rivals and still have three more games to improve on their impressive 31-18 division record.
And just about everyone on the roster made a significant contribution, from likely American League Rookie of the Year Gunnar Henderson and budding superstar catcher Adley Rutschman to utility outfielder Ryan McKenna and several promising minor league prospects. The roster was so deep, in fact, that the O’s were able to weather the injuries to Mountcastle and Mullins because of moves by Elias that didn’t exactly look like game-changers at the outset.
Though neither will end up among the top three Most Valuable Oriole candidates, Ryan O’Hearn and Aaron Hicks were huge contributors to the consistency the Orioles displayed throughout the summer.
O’Hearn came up from Triple-A Norfolk after not making the big league club out of spring training and forced his way into a regular cleanup role with a long list of big hits and home runs. Hicks appeared to be in decline when the Yankees released him and Elias signed him at the end of May, but he added stability in the outfield and a disciplined five- or six-hole hitter who also delivered in the clutch.
Who knows how far the Orioles can go in the postseason, but there doesn’t appear to be much question who will be voted American League Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Brandon Hyde was in the mix last year and – even with other strong candidates such as Rangers manager Bruce Bochy – it’s hard to imagine Hyde not being a near-unanimous selection after leading his team to the best record in the American League two years after the rebuilding O’s lost 110 games.
Don’t know what the wise guys in Vegas would say about that, but you have to like his chances.