On July 28, the Orioles lost to the Oakland Athletics to drop their record to 52-49.
As pleasant a surprise as the club had been to that point, the season suddenly carried all the hallmarks of an Oriole collapse, the kind fans had come to expect in 14 straight years of losing.
The Orioles had given up far more runs than they had scored. The defense was suspect. Injuries had frayed an already patched-together roster.
But executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter did not simply watch the train derail. They executed a series of moves — none of which seemed transformative at the time — that made the Orioles a different and far better team in August and September.
They jumped 20-year-old Manny Machado from Double-A to the big leagues. They signed Nate McLouth, a former All-Star scorned by two other teams, and plugged him into left field. They made Nick Markakis — once projected to be a slugger — their leadoff hitter. They repurposed struggling young starters into deadly middle relievers.
This refusal to sit still permeated the organization. If a player could not do his job in the majors, he would be sent to Triple-A to find a more effective role. Meanwhile, another player who had performed well in the minors would be given an opportunity — a real chance to play — in Baltimore.
"The one thing that we can offer that some clubs can't is opportunity," Showalter said. "Now, I think when we talk to people in the offseason about coming with us, regardless of their track record or status in the game, they know that this is a team that's going to give opportunity regardless of your background. If you play well, we'll keep you."
Since that loss to Oakland, the Orioles have gone 41-20 and outscored opponents by 70 runs. They have played not like a fluke but like one of the very best teams in baseball.
"I think the Orioles are a great example of how a well-constructed, middle-market team rises to the postseason," said Cleveland Indians team president Mark Shapiro. "It's a combination of well-executed draft picks, impactful trades and then those creative touches that it takes to finish out the picture."
It's tempting to view the 2012 Orioles as the Hollywood-crafted Indians of "Major League," sprung improbably to life. But the reality is more complicated.
Duquette's predecessor, Andy MacPhail, left after the 2011 season, widely regarded as another in a string of executive failures. But MacPhail deserves substantial credit for building this year's team.
His regime drafted and signed Machado and signed stalwart catcher Matt Wieters. MacPhail showed a particularly deft hand at trading for everyday players, acquiring Adam Jones J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds for a collection of middle relievers, second-tier prospects and oft-injured starter Erik Bedard. MacPhail, in conjunction with owner Peter Angelos, also hired Showalter.
"I'd say what was there as a core was pretty good," said former Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. "They had a really good pillar behind the plate, a good shortstop, a really good centerfielder. Davis and Reynolds have power."
Duquette had a similar view of what he inherited.
"This team had a number of core players, every-day position players, that were good players," he said. "They were just looking for some hope, and we needed to go to work on building a pitching staff. That's where we spent most of our energy."
A global search for pitching
MacPhail had tried to build his rotation through the draft, figuring that if he picked enough talented arms, some of them would have to pan out. But the Orioles were unlucky in that respect. Highly touted prospects Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta and Zach Britton all pitched well in flashes, but none established himself as a first-rate starter by the end of MacPhail's tenure.
Many analysts thought the 2012 team's fortunes would also rise or fall on the arms of that quartet. But Duquette and his scouts scoured the globe for pitchers who could step in if the flashier names faltered. Fellow executives praise Duquette for his attention to detail — "Dan is tirelessly focused on the game to an almost obsessive level," Shapiro said — and nowhere did that show more clearly than in the pitching hunt.
While other clubs scrambled to spend tens of millions of dollars in bidding for Japanese sensation Yu Darvish, the Orioles snapped up Wei-Yin Chen, a Taiwanese lefty whom they had scouted for several years. Chen has given them 192 2/3 solid innings for the modest cost of $3 million.
Even more obscure was Miguel Gonzalez, plucked from the Mexican League on the recommendation of new scout Fred Ferreira. Gonzalez had failed to reach the majors in seven seasons with Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox and was barely an afterthought in the Orioles' plans entering the season. Now he's 9-4 and has been arguably the club's best starter in the second half of the season.
Ferreira said Duquette's organizations have always excelled at luring players overlooked by others. "He brings that from our days with Montreal," the scout said. "We didn't have a big budget, and I used to go out, and I would tell Dan, 'I'm going out and selling opportunity.'"
Duquette made his biggest splash of the preseason when he traded the Orioles' best pitcher from recent seasons, Jeremy Guthrie, for Jason Hammel, a starter who had never compiled an ERA better than 4.33 in a full season, and reliever Matt Lindstrom. The move puzzled fans, but not only has Hammel outpitched Guthrie, the Orioles used Lindstrom to trade for another starter, Joe Saunders, when they needed rotation help in August. Saunders will start Friday's wild-card playoff against the Texas Rangers.
Tillman, meanwhile, ironed out his delivery at Triple-A Norfolk and has pitched by far the best baseball of his career over the last three months.
So, despite finishing the season with a rotation that barely resembles their Opening Day blueprint, the Orioles have cobbled together decent starting pitching.
Duquette and Showalter did their most vital work, however, in assembling and managing the team's bullpen.
Closer Jim Johnson and hard-throwing righty Pedro Strop (another clever trade acquisition by MacPhail) were givens for the relief corps. But the Orioles plucked Darren O'Day, who had struggled in 2011, off the waiver wire and signed versatile 34-year-old Luis Ayala as a free agent.
"We were looking for dependable pitchers, really, and we were also looking for some experience, because we knew we were going to have a young rotation," Duquette said.
Later in the season, the Orioles added Matusz and Arrieta to the relief mix and called up Baltimore native Steve Johnson to take a hybrid starter-reliever role after he had pitched exceptionally at Triple-A.
Showalter managed to find regular work for everyone without riding any reliever too hard.
Excellent relief pitching has been the one constant throughout the season, perhaps the chief reason why the Orioles are an astonishing 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra-inning games.
For all of MacPhail's work to build an offensive core and all of Duquette's efforts to find pitching, many fans have come to love the team for what Shapiro called "those creative touches."
In one sign of their roster experimentation, the Orioles have used 52 players this year, more than any other American League playoff team and 13 more than the Rangers. They could have installed a 24-hour monorail to Triple-A Norfolk for all the roster moves they made. The Tides suited up 75 players, a record for the International League, which has existed since 1884.
Duquette said he expected that kind of roster flux for this year's team.
"We looked at a lot of players between Triple-A and the big-league teams," he said. "But we needed to look at a lot of players to find some good ones to help us be a winning team. Is that my first choice? No. But it needed to be done. As some of our young players mature, maybe we won't need to look at so many players."
Duquette gave Showalter credit for making the shuffle work. When players earned their way to Baltimore with strong performances in the minors, Showalter did not relegate them to the end of the bench. He found everyone a role in a style reminiscent of Earl Weaver.
Players in turn said this culture of opportunity energized them.
"For Triple-A players, that's really encouraging that regardless of your roster status, if you're going to get the job done, they're going to bring you up because they're trying to win," said McLouth, who became the club's everyday left fielder two months after being released by the Pittsburgh Pirates. "It just showed that they wanted the absolutely best players at the time up here."
It would be hard to find four players more important to the Orioles' recent success than McLouth, Machado, Gonzalez and Tillman. All spent part of the season in Double- or Triple-A, and all had to win major league spots with their play.
Machado and McLouth helped transform the team's defense from a weakness to a strength. McLouth has filled in ably as the club's leadoff hitter since Markakis broke his thumb. Machado — promoted aggressively after convincing Duquette and Showalter of his unusual maturity — has flashed surprising power for a hitter two years out of high school.
Tillman and Gonzalez have reeled off quality start after quality start in the last month.
Norfolk manager Ron Johnson said he watched such players improve, fueled by a belief that if they were good, they would not be forgotten by the decision makers in Baltimore.
"The guys who aren't doing well are going down," said Johnson, a former major league first baseman. "The guys who are, are going up. … It's the message you send up here and we just feed off it."
Built to last?
Those outside the organization have noticed the culture perpetuated by Duquette and Showalter.
"You watch them, and they just play hard," said Ricciardi.
Shapiro has observed a team and manager operating with great urgency, perhaps understanding that chances to win the AL East don't come along often.
"I look at the way Buck is managing, and I think he understands that," said the Indians president, a Baltimore native. "They have not let many opportunities slip by this season."
It feels almost uncouth to ask the question with this delightful season still in progress, but are these Orioles built to last?
"They could be pretty good," Shapiro said. "I'd say the biggest challenge is not the team but the division."
Duquette is optimistic. Most of the team is likely to return next year, with Reynolds, McLouth and second base looming as obvious questions.
'"It should be a pretty good club for a couple of years," Duquette said. "I think the fans can look forward to a competitive team. I think we have the core group."