As playoff push ends, Orioles savor turnaround for the ages: ‘We understand what it takes’

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			As playoff push ends, Orioles savor turnaround for the ages: ‘We understand what it takes’
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Brandon Hyde heard the question and paused for eight seconds. In the end, he didn’t really have an answer.

Asked what about this 2022 Orioles season didn’t surprise him, Hyde was temporarily stumped. It in many ways speaks to what his team accomplished in a campaign that had its dreams of a surprise postseason berth dashed early Saturday morning, surviving into but not lasting through the first day of October.

The Orioles were not supposed to be here. They figured to take a step, sure, because it’s hard not to improve on a 52-win season. But they did that better than anybody since the turn of the 20th century, becoming the first team since 1900 to finish .500 or better after losing 110 games the previous year.

It was not enough to join an expanded postseason field, but that it was even a conversation shows how remarkable of a year it was. The Orioles did little in the offseason. Their top starter got Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, and injuries delayed the debuts of their top two prospects. They traded away two key players — twice. Yet, their hopes of reaching the postseason lasted half an hour into October.

“From November to March, we never heard that there was any sort of chance that this team was going to have a chance to make the postseason,” Hyde said. “To be able to play the way we have and put ourselves in position, I’m really proud of our players and coaches and everybody involved. I think the city of Baltimore and a lot of people enjoyed watching our team play this year, so after three years of really hard-to-watch baseball — and I saw it also — to have our guys play the way they have this year and stay competitive and win and put themselves in the conversation of postseason, these guys deserve a lot of credit.”

With products of their rebuild scheduled to reach the majors this season, the Orioles were expected to improve but still be among the league’s worst teams. They signed three major league free agents in right-hander Jordan Lyles, infielder Rougned Odor and catcher Robinson Chirinos, with only Lyles’ deal giving him over $1 million.

Chirinos figured to serve as a backup to Adley Rutschman, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft and the game’s top prospect, but as major league spring training began after the league’s 99-day lockout, Rutschman suffered a left tricep strain, ensuring he wouldn’t break camp with the team.

Days before the season was set to start, the Orioles traded backend relievers Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott to the Miami Marlins, a deal that erased half of Hyde’s experienced bullpen options. The same happened in terms of his rotation a week into the campaign, with ace John Means lost for the season after two starts because of an elbow injury.

Rutschman at last arrived in late May, with Baltimore eight games under .500 a quarter into the year. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez, regarded as the sport’s top pitching prospect, seemed set to join Rutschman in the majors, but on the first day of June, he suffered a right lat muscle strain that has thus far prevented his debut, though he could make a start in the season’s final days.

The ascension of Rutschman, though, seemed to be a turning point. By mid-June, he was one of the game’s best players and an American League Rookie of the Year candidate, and the Orioles were one of the sport’s top teams, entering August on a 27-16 stretch. But they traded first baseman/designated hitter Trey Mancini to the Houston Astros on the first day of that month and All-Star closer Jorge López to the Minnesota a day later, with their only deadline addition being Brett Phillips, an outfielder the Tampa Bay Rays had designated for assignment and who the Orioles would do the same to three weeks later.

At the time, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias cited the team’s lacking playoff probabilities as a factor in the moves, which rankled some in the Orioles’ clubhouse. Yet Baltimore kept winning, posting its third straight winning month and at one point moving into a wild-card spot.

The club struggled in September. The difficulties with runners in scoring position that plagued them early in the year returned, and a bullpen that had pitched well for much of the year showed signs of wear and tear. Mancini and López have lesser numbers with their new clubs, but the shift in roles caused by their absences in Baltimore exposed holes.

Yet, a victory Friday night ensured the Orioles their first non-losing season in six years, and their next victory will make them a winning team while marking a 30-win improvement from 2021.

“It was such a fun summer this year,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “Those few months, where everything was just clicking, we were rolling, and it got us to the point where we were able to make it until five games left in the season before we were eliminated from playoff contention. I don’t think anybody would have believed you if you said that in the beginning of the year.

“It’s really disappointing that it’s not a possibility now, to think that we have to go out and play today knowing we can’t get there, but man, it was a fun ride and it was a fun season. Really looking forward to what this team can do next year.”

All of their players are contractually situated to return but those original three free agents, who Hyde and teammates have frequently credited with changing the team’s culture. Lyles has an $11 million team option for next year and said Saturday he would “love” to return.

“To see what we’ve done in the last calendar year as an organization, from what was expected of us coming into the season and the transition to be where we are right now, it’s pretty special,” Lyles said.

The trade of Scott and Sulser proved to open the door for a group of unproven and unwanted pitchers who have orchestrated the sport’s greatest pitching improvement in more than nine decades. With López dealt, Lyles is the only member of the Orioles’ pitching staff making above the league’s minimum salary. After Mancini was traded, outfielder Anthony Santander became the only position player Baltimore is paying more than $1 million.

Elias has said he expects payroll to increase this offseason, with both increased salaries internally and external additions figured to play a part in that. This team’s achievements despite the previous lack of effort to contend hints at what could be possible when, as Elias put it, “liftoff” arrives.

“I did want to surprise some people this year,” Hyde said. “I wanted us to play a better brand of baseball than we have in the past, and I thought we were as we got more talented, but I think just seeing all the 0% postseason possibilities and then people discussing playoffs with our team, I think that that’s been the most enjoyable thing this year, proving people wrong.

“As a competitor, I wanted to be in the playoffs. I want to experience those things. I want our guys to, but we gave it a good run. … We understand what it takes to win now.”

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