Inside the Orioles clubhouse, a tub of champagne on ice sat in the middle of the room, a black tablecloth covering it. Plastic covers were rolled atop the lockers, ready to be unraveled to cue a celebration 15 years in waiting.
Hours later, anticipation was met with validation. While traveling to their final regular-season series in Tampa Bay, the Orioles received word that they had clinched their first postseason berth since 1997 with the Los Angeles Angels’ loss to the Texas Rangers Sunday evening.
After suffering through 14 straight losing seasons, the Orioles have clinched at least one of the two AL wild-card spots. They still have a greater goal within their grasp before the regular season’s end: an American League East division title.
“I think everybody knows where the finish line is and we’re not there,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “You don’t do what these guys have done without emotions involved, but they’ve always been funneled in the right direction, and that’s at the opposition and the challenge ahead of us each night and each day. We’ve got three really tough challenges ahead of us here in Tampa and once the smoke’s cleared we’ll see what’s left for us and know that we’re playing more than 162 games.”
Said Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette: “Hats off to Buck and the players. They know we have more work to do and they’re going to do everything they can to not only have a playoff game in Baltimore for the fans, but do everything they can to realize the goals and dreams of the organization.”
Before boarding their team charter, Orioles players stood on the field after the final out of their 6-3 sweep-sealing win over the Boston Red Sox in their final regular-season home game. Along with the announced 41,257 that packed Camden Yards, their attention turned to the stadium video board for a reason to party.
As the final weeks of the regular season dwindled to days, the Orioles’ mantra has been to handle their own business. Win out and they go to the playoffs for the first time since 1997, no matter what the other contenders muster. Win out and worse-case scenario, clinch a one-game playoff for an AL East title.
But given the bizarre set of circumstances that arose Sunday – which included their team charter having to make a precautionary emergency landing because of smoke coming from the oven on the plane -- the Orioles needed help in order to celebrate a postseason berth in front of their home crowd, able to clinch a wild-card spot with an Angels loss in one of the two games of their day-night doubleheader against Texas.
And with the Angels one out away from defeat, the Orioles and their fans watched together as Torii Hunter hit a game-winning two-run double to give Los Angeles a 5-4 win.
“Our goal now is to figure out a way to play more baseball games here at Camden,” Showalter said.
Fans filtered out of the stadium for the final time this regular season. The Orioles retreated to their clubhouse to prepare for their pivotal three-game series in Tampa Bay — unfulfilled.
“There was a chance there [for a special scene],” said closer Jim Johnson, who converted his 50th save. “Now is a time where I think we are paying more attention to the scoreboard, obviously. There’s a lot of different scenarios that could still play out so, like I said, we were going to be doing the same thing the fans were doing so might as well stay out there with them.
“It means a lot to the city. It’s been a long time, and I think it was important.”
The Angels’ loss in the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader clinched a postseason berth, but the O’s definitely wanted to send their fans home with reason to celebrate — especially considering what Baltimore baseball fans have endured through 14 straight losing seasons.
“We came back in here and it was really awkward,” said starting pitcher Joe Saunders. “You don’t want to try to rely on other teams helping you out. If we take care of business in Tampa Bay, and against a really good team and a really good pitching staff, we’re going to earn this and it will be on our terms.”
The Orioles’ (92-67) larger goal remains. Their win kept them in a first-place tie with the New York Yankees atop the AL East, and they entered the evening just ½ game behind the Rangers for the AL’s best record.
“You’re in, you’re in,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “I don’t care, nobody cares. We can do it at home or we can do it on the plane. We are going to party somewhere.”
Saunders, who was an Orioles fan growing up in Northern Virginia, did his part to clinch at home, recording his fourth straight quality start — but just his first win in that span — allowing three runs on eight hits with five strikeouts and no walks over 7 1/3 innings.
The Orioles hit three homers off Red Sox pitching, each to lead off an inning. Of the Orioles’ 31 runs over the past four games, 24 of them have been scored by home run.
Left fielder Nate McLouth set the tone early with his third leadoff homer of the year, taking a 2-1 pitch from Red Sox starter Zach Stewart into the left-center field seats.
J.J. Hardy and Chris Davis added solo homers and Jim Thome drove in two runs on a pair of RBI singles against Boston’s shift defense.
Davis’ 31st homer of the season opened the fifth and marked his fifth homer in the past four games. Davis has also homered in four consecutive games, tying Nolan Reimold’s team-high mark set April 13 to 17.
Saunders allowed two homers — Cody Ross’ solo shot to lead off the fourth and a two-run line drive to left by Daniel Nava in the seventh — but the 31-year-old left-hander tipped his cap to acknowledge a standing ovation as he walked off the field with one out in the eighth.
Darren O’Day got the final two outs in the eighth — with a little help from catcher Matt Wieters, who threw out Dustin Pedrioa trying to steal second from his knees — and Johnson tossed a perfect ninth to seal the win.
“You want to have the chance to roll the dice in October,” Showalter said. “Our guys have played very confidently with no fear.”
And after watching a little baseball on the video board, the Orioles traveled to Tampa Bay to face a Rays team that is still pushing for a wild-card spot.
The Orioles’ emergency landing in Jacksonville, Fla., was a precautionary move. The plane was inspected and the Orioles reboarded and got back in the air shortly after a brief delay en route to St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport.
A little delay, but after 14 years, what’s another hour?
“We’ve had to fight for everything this year,” Johnson said. “With the way that game finishes up, this [season] is going to come down to the wire. Look at how last year finished, March Madness in September. This game is crazy, you never know what’s going to happen and that’s the way this team has been fighting all year.”