Last season, first baseman Chris Davis batted .286 for the Baltimore Orioles with 53 homers and 138 RBIs. A finer offensive season is rare to find in baseball history.
Also in 2013, young third baseman Manny Machado batted .283 with an American-League high 51 doubles. He hit 14 homers and drove in 71. And catcher Matt Wieters batted .287 with 22 homers and 79 RBIs.
The Orioles finished 85-77 in 2013 and failed to reach the postseason.
Jump ahead to this season.
Davis battled injuries and struggled to make the contact. In 127 games, he batted only .196 with 26 homers and 72 RBI.
Machado has been lost to a season-ending injury after batting .278 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs.
And Wieters played in just 26 games this lost season.
Yet the Orioles improved 11 games to finish 96-66 and will meet the Kansas City Royals in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series starting Friday night in Baltimore.
How does a team improve that much with three key players doing so much less?
It’s about pitching, dummy.
The Orioles’ pitchers improved their earned-run average from an unsightly 4.20 in 2013 to 3.43 this season. Nowhere in baseball is the decline in offense more evident than in the Baltimore pitching staff.
Yet even with Davis, Machado and Wieters doing less for whatever reason, and with shortstop J.J. Hardy going from .263-25-76 in 2013 to .268-9-52 this season, the Orioles managed to again lead baseball with 211 home runs, just one fewer than they hit last season.
Outfielder/DH Nelson Cruz was one of the biggest and best acquistions of the year. After being suspended for 50 games last season after testing positive for PEDs, Cruz had a career year for Baltimore, batting .271 with 40 homers and 108 RBI.
Meanwhile, journeyman Steve Pearce has filled in for Davis, batting .293 with 21 homers in 102 games. And Orioles mainstays Adam Jones (.281-29-96) and Nick Markakis (.276-14-50) continue to be productive.
It’s a fun team and one that, despite losing two more games during the regular season then the Los Angeles Angels, will be a much tougher test for Kansas City.
Like the Royals, Baltimore has that certain something that’s hard to define, but it’s an ingredient that winning postseason teams have. Call it gumption, if you will. Or perseverence. Or, in some cases, blind luck.
Baltimore swept Detroit in the ALDS. Kansas City swept the Angels. This meeting between the Royals and Orioles feels fateful, almost.
Most will pick the Orioles because of their power, improved pitching, lock-down bullpen and manager, Buck Showalter. It is hard to find a deficiency with Baltimore, whose hitters work counts and pounce on pitching mistakes. Home-field advantage could be a factor, too, and the Orioles have it.
But if we’ve learned anything about Kansas City so far in its four postseason games, it’s that the Royals are playing their best baseball right now. They’re making defense cool again after so many years in which baseball executives didn’t seem to care much if their players wore gloves on the field.
Kansas City’s speed – offensive and defensively – is a huge advantage and something the Orioles can’t match. The Royals succeeded to make an Angels team that had one of the best final two seasons in franchise history suddenly appear slow and old and disinterested. KC has a lot of energy and just as much confidence and the Orioles would be foolish to take this series lightly.
And they won’t, not with Showalter in charge. Remember, too, that Baltimore hasn’t been to the World Series since 1983, a drought two years longer than the Royals.
These will be hungry and ferocious teams going at it. It shapes up as one of the most intriguing and interesting postseason match-ups in a while.
I think it goes seven games. And I think the Orioles ultimately pull it out.