17-Years Later, The O’s are Division Champs

“Now I know how a locust feels.”

That was the comment of the night from my buddy as we watched the 2014 Orioles ascend into Baltimore history as the AL East Division Champs for the first time in 17 years.

This was a long time coming.

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Since Tony Fernandez’s “track, wall, gone” shot off of Armando Benitez in Game Six of the 1997 ALCS followed by a “backwards K” by Robby Alomar in his last at-bat as an Oriole, Baltimore’s free fall into the black hole of irrelevancy became a hiatus of epic proportion.

Those who haven’t suffered through it don’t understand it.  From an outsider’s perspective, or from a fair-weather “free t-shirt night” once-a-year at the Yard type of fan, the pain and suffering is impossible to comprehend. 

The many years of retreads, has-beens, and never-will-bes were enough to drive even the most dedicated O’s enthusiast into the arms of other bandwagon teams year after year; much like the town whore who sleeps with all the boys just to try and not feel so empty and shattered by the boy who broke her heart so many times over again.  The Orioles were that heartbreaker—but no longer are the “real” fans forced to slum around.

If you ever wondered how bad it was, consider the fact that Ty Wigginton was the Orioles’ All-Star representative during one of about 15-seasons not worth mentioning or remembering.

Last night, during the game, many “Let’s Go O’s” chants broke out among the crowd.  I remember the dark days when that chant was met with jeers and laughter from its own fans—including yours truly who often partook in an insult created by another diehard buddy of mine in referring to our guys as “The Blows.”

But the O’s don’t blow.  And “Let’s Go O’s” is relevant and respectable at all times.  In fact, in some weird feeling of fate, it’s perhaps appropriate to switch it around and say “Let Go.”  Let go of the past that began 17-years ago.

And if you don’t understand what I’m talking about—you just don’t get it.  You don’t get how good this feels.

Predicting the O’s playoff rotation

Remember, early this season, when the Orioles lacked “pitching”?

With the magic number at three, the AL East crown is all-but inevitable.  Thus the—for lack of better words—“looming” question is who will pitch the Divisional Round best-of-five-series playoff games?

Chen or Norris? Norris or Gonzalez? Chen and Tillman or Gonzales and Gausman?  Five starters all capable and deserving of pitching in the playoffs—none of whom is anywhere near the pay-grade of Ubaldo Jimenez.  Whodathunkit?

It’s tough to predict which direction O’s skipper Buck Showalter will go—he’s not always the pillar of textbook baseball practices.  But an educated guess would allude to the idea that it’ll be a three-man turn, with something close to this:

Game 1 (in Baltimore)—Miguel Gonzalez

Game 2 (in Baltimore)—Wei Yin Chen

Game 3 (away)—Chris Tillman

Gonzalez, (9-8, 3.28 ERA) has been the team’s most dominant starter over the past few weeks.  Since the All-Star Break, he’s (5-3, 2.12 ERA).  The big difference between Gonzalez and Chris Tillman, who would be equally as deserving to be the Game One starter is that Tillman is (8-0) on the road this season.  For some reason, Tillman just knows how to win in someone else’s house.  Along with this, he’s (12-5, 3.29 ERA) on the season and (5-0, 2.01 ERA) in the second half; in addition, he’s had 19 straight starts allowing three-runs or less.  It makes all the sense in the world to depend on him in Game Three, which would most likely be in Detroit or Kansas City. 

Looking to game two, Wei Yin Chen has to be the guy.  He’s (15-4) on the season and he’s been dominant in the second-half (6-1, 2.67 ERA).  Perhaps the strongest argument for Gonzalez and Chen to lead the way is the fact that both have successful, albeit limited, post-season experience—something Chris Tillman lacks. 

Alas, it’s Bud Norris and Kevin Gausman who’ll either be left off of the Divisional Round roster or be moved into a long-relief if-needed role.  Norris, who has been terrific since the break (6-2, 3.43 ERA) and solid on the season (13-8), lacks the same consistency that has been shown by Gonzalez, Chen, and Tillman—even though Tillman can drive fans to drinking during his sometimes 30-40 pitch innings. Gausman on the other hand has been solid, but just isn’t at the level of the other four potential starters that the Birds could run with.

There was a time when the Orioles’ Achilles Heel was pitching.  Now, in mid-September, the club has a surplus.  And that’s a problem many other teams would love to have.

Props and Stops: Ravens—Steelers Recap

After coasting to a 26-6 victory over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, this is as good as it gets.

Joe Flacco was sharp.  The running game was effective.  The offensive line was terrific.  Defensively, the Ravens thwarted nearly everything the Pittsburgh Steelers tried to do. 

Props:

Courtney Upshaw—Talk about setting the tone early.  Upshaw’s penalized, albeit-clean hit that lifted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger off of his feet and into the turf set the tone for the entire night and clearly altered Big Ben’s rhythm.

Jimmy Smith—There’s some old-school wisdom about referees and cornerbacks that goes something like “if you aren’t talking about them, then you know they were good.”

Elvis Dumervil—Finally, signs of life from the edges of the defense.  Now if only Terrell Suggs can get rolling.

CJ Mosely—In his second NFL game, Mosely was a presence up the middle, something the Ravens lacked last season.  Mosely’s ability to immediately start and play effectively makes the whole defense that much more capable. 

Bernard Pierce and Justin Forsett—Perhaps it was last week’s benching, but Pierce ran with more conviction and vision.  Forsett, who is starting to prove to be a legitimate playmaker and diamond in the rough, is the perfect complement.

Jeremy Zuttah—Centers don’t get much credit, but it’s due in this case.  The obvious upgrade from Gino Gradkowski is already paying dividends as the offensive line looks very solid thus far.

Owen Daniels—If he’s healthy, he’s on the Dennis Pitta ability-level.  After multiple injury-ridden seasons in Houston, it’s nice to see him making plays.

Steve Smith—The guy just grinds.  Hard not to love his fight, play-in and play-out.  At 35 years-old, he’s much more capable than most expected.

Justin Tucker—Let’s not forget how important it is to have a guy that’s becoming as automatic as Matt Stover.

Stops:

It’d be nice to see John Harbaugh show some signs of improvement in his clock-management.  It didn’t matter last night, but later in the season, if someone doesn’t lend a helping hand in managing the clock and the team’s timeouts, his struggles will come back to bite this team.

The bunch formation down at the goal line isn’t working.  It hasn’t worked since the days of Jamal Lewis.  The Ravens don’t have the offensive personnel to play ground-and-pound football inside the five-yard line.  Furthermore, sending your franchise quarterback on two consecutive sneaks at the goal line is idiotic.  If Joe Flacco takes the wrong side of a helmet to the ribs, Baltimore’s season would lie on the shoulders of Tyrod Taylor.  Virginia Tech fans might be interested in seeing what the ex-Hokie can do, but I’m surely not.

Speaking of goal line formations, where is Marlon Brown?  After a promising rookie season, he’s all of a sudden Jimmy Hoffa.  Why not use Brown near the goal line where he can out-size smaller corners in the end zone?

It’s a good day in Baltimore.  The Ravens beat the Steelers handily, the O’s take on the Yankees with a 10-game lead, and the city is buzzing with red-white-and blue pride for Francis Scott Key, et al.

After the past few days of drama, this is as good as it gets for Baltimore.