ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Right now, it's hard to get around the feeling that the Orioles have run out of magic.
Maybe it evaporated when their on-field clinching celebration at Camden Yards on Sunday was put on hold by the Los Angeles Angels, who staged a late rally in Texas to win the first game of a doubleheader and keep the Orioles guessing until late that night.
Maybe it was when they were squeezing their arm rests during that emergency landing in Jacksonville, Fla., on their way to play their final series of the year against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
Or, maybe it was just running into a Rays starting rotation that was virtually unhittable for three straight nights.
That was probably it.
Alex Cobb, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson combined to pitch 21 1/3 innings in the series and allowed just two runs on five hits. They also combined to strike out 28 batters — 15 of them by Shields on Tuesday in a game the Orioles somehow managed to win with just two hits.
“We shouldn’t feel that they were picking on us,” manager Buck Showalter said. “They’ve got two guys and some people would say they have three that are worthy of the Cy Young Award. This time of year, when the pitchers are on their game and the hitters are on on their game, pitching wins…The people who are playing this time of year, starting Friday, it’s because of their pitching. That’s the common denominator.”
The Rays played it straight. They respected the game by playing their regular lineup even after they were eliminated from postseason consideration on Monday night. They pitched hard and they played hard, and they closed out a 90-win season with a terrific performance by Hellickson and a thrilling three-homer game by third baseman Evan Longoria to send the Orioles on the road for Friday night's wild-card playoff game against the Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington.
So, Orioles fans are left to wonder just who is going to show up in Texas – the resilient team that has bounced back from every setback during this surprising season or the toothless one that suddenly looks so lost and frustrated at the plate. The O’s aren’t going to get any quarter on that score from the Rangers, who are expected to send 16-game winner Yu Darvish to the mound, but they aren’t conceding anything.
“We have a chance to move on,’’ said first baseman Mark Reynolds, “and have a chance to get back home to play in front of our fans. Our goal is to go in there and win and after that, we’ll see what happens.”
At least the Orioles entered Wednesday night's game with one thing going for them. There was no scenario in which they would have to fly overnight to the West Coast to face the Oakland A's in a one-game wild-card playoff. The A's completed a terrific late-season comeback Wednesday afternoon with a resounding 12-5 victory over the Texas to steal the American League West title on the only day of the regular season they would spend in first place.
If you're keeping score at home, the A's now have had two champagne clubhouse celebrations. The Orioles — who were toasting the fates instead of cursing them for the first 159 games of the season — have had none.
The A's, of course, are almost as amazing a turnaround story as the Orioles. They finished third last year with a 74-88 record and trailed the first-place Rangers by five games as recently as nine days ago.
Nobody in the Orioles clubhouse would admit it, but they wanted no part of a one-game playoff at the Oakland Coliseum, where the A's play very well and the ballpark configuration is not friendly to a team that gets such a high percentage of its runs on the long ball. They probably wanted no part of the A's under any circumstances, considering the way they've been playing down the stretch.
Instead, they took the field with three options – two of which would bring them back to Baltimore for at least one home playoff game.
Of course, one of those required some help from the Boston Red Sox, who nearly pulled the Orioles into a first-place tie with the Yankees on Tuesday night, but blew a two-run lead in the ninth and lost in extra innings.
This time, however, there would be no such suspense. Red Sox starter Daisuke Matsuzaka gave up five runs early and it was soon apparent that the Orioles were playing for home-field advantage against the Rangers on Friday night.
So, Plan B was to beat the Rays and head back to Baltimore, but they have this quirky rule in baseball where you have to score more runs than your opponent, and the Rays pitching staff made that too much of a challenge during the season-ending series. The Orioles scored only a couple of meaningful runs in the three games and looked like a bunch of guys who were trying way too hard.
Maybe a day off will do them good, even if it has to be in Texas.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app