Saunders' journey symbolic of 2012 Orioles
ARLINGTON -- Joe Saunders never expected to be in this place watching this wild celebration. He's like a lot of other Baltimore Orioles in that way. His story is symbolic of their story.
"These guys went out of their way to make me feel part of things," he said. "When you get traded, you don't know how it's going to work out. I was so lucky to be part of this thing. We wanted to bring some real playoff baseball back to Baltimore."
The Orioles lefty had just allowed one run in 5 2/3 innings as the Orioles defeated the Texas Rangers, 5-1, in the American League Wild Card game on Friday. He did it by changing speeds, keeping the ball down and doing exactly what a smart, efficient, eight-year veteran is supposed to do.
The Orioles are an amazing story on so many levels. First, they won 93 games -- that's 24 more than last season -- and made the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. For veterans like Adam Jones and Matt Wieters, it was the season they'd dreamed of and worked for after years of losing.
"To be able to come in here with this group of guys is really special," Wieters said. "We've been through some tough times the last couple of years, but maybe that makes it better."
For others, it was a ticket they never expected to have punched. General manager Dan Duquette did a superb job adding player after player for the stretch run. When Nate McLouth got released by the Pirates, the Orioles offered him a chance to restart his career.
"We've really stuck together every since I've been here," McLouth said. "It's been a lot of contributions from a lot of different people. We don't just count on one or two guys every night, and that takes a lot of pressure off people."
Jim Thome, Miguel Gonzalez and Randy Wolf landed with the Orioles after being released by other teams. Lew Ford got back to the big leagues after five years in the Minors. Manny Machado (20) and Dylan Bundy (19) made their big league debuts.
All of them contributed in ways large and small. Despite using 53 different players, the Orioles performed with cohesion and purpose.
"It was the players that allowed it to mesh," Showalter said. "I knew in the spring we had a special group of people because of the way they made it for Wei-Yin Chen. They created a fraternity in which they let people in. They made his season a lot easier. That's when it first hit me. They went out of their way for him."
In the franchise's first playoff game in 15 years on Friday, Showalter went for the guy Duquette acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in August. At the time of the deal, the Orioles had a rotation of rookies. Duquette wanted someone with experience -- someone who'd actually pitched in a postseason game. Saunders won three games and had a 2.75 ERA in September.
He came through in October, too. When the first two Texas Rangers reached base in the first inning, Showalter had a reliever up in the bullpen. But Saunders induced a double-play grounder to set the tone and help the Orioles advance to the American League Division Series against the Yankees.
"He was the key," Showalter said. "I thought if Joe could get the first inning under his belt, we could keep it close."
Saunders had an ERA approaching seven in his last six starts at Rangers Ballpark, but he kept the ball down, got three double-play grounders and struck out four. After the first inning, the Rangers got just one more runner into scoring position against him.
"I knew what I was capable of," he said. "I knew I'd had some bad starts here, but I've had some good starts here, too. I told myself to forget what has happened in the past. I hadn't seen these guys in like three years. It was a whole new night."
Showalter pushed all the right buttons, as usual. He told his guys to be aggressive -- warned them, in fact. He told them he'd have their backs as long as they were playing the game aggressively.
McLouth and Mark Reynolds stole bases on their way. Four different players drove in runs. J.J. Hardy, Ryan Flaherty and McLouth all slapped hits to the opposite field. And once Saunders was done, Showalter coaxed 3 1/3 shutout innings from one of the game's best bullpens.
They partied wildly, partied for a city that desperately wanted a winner, partied for a unique club that was expertly constructed and brilliantly managed.
"This team was bonded the whole year," Wieters said. "We had guys going up and down the whole year, but we had a common goal. That was going to the World Series."
The Orioles aren't quite to the World Series yet, but they've got a nice blend of youth and experience. They also believe absolutely anything is possible.
"We don't just count on one or two guys every night, and that takes a lot of pressure off people," McLouth said. "We've really stuck together ever since I've been here. It's a nice thing to be part of."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.