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Unheralded players important to O's success

BALTIMORE -- At one point earlier this season, some of the Orioles were looking at what was going on at Triple-A Norfolk -- which had roster transactions at an even quicker rate than the big league club -- with a mixture of awe and amusement.

"We were joking that we had a Triple-A All-Star team," said outfielder/designated hitter Chris Davis, who has stayed in the Major Leagues the entire season for the first time since his big league debut in 2008. "That's been a big reason we've been successful up here. Those guys have come up here and helped us out."

Have they ever. Of Baltimore's active 35-player roster -- excluding injured players Jason Hammel, Wilson Betemit and Nick Markakis -- 18 have played in the Minors this season, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone on the roster who hasn't been instrumental in at least one O's win.

So who are they, this cast of characters who have their sights set on the organization's first postseason in 15 years?

They are 36-year-old outfielder Lew Ford -- signed from the independent Atlantic League's Long Island Ducks -- who spent nearly five seasons out of professional baseball in a career that started with Ford winning the lone walk-on spot against 120 hopefuls as a sophomore at Texas A&M.

They are 30-year-old Nate McLouth, an All-Star and Gold Glove Award winner in 2008 who struggled for parts of three seasons in Atlanta and was released by the Pirates on May 31 after hitting .140 with 18 strikeouts and two RBIs.

They are right-handed pitcher Miguel Gonzalez -- a 28-year-old rookie signed out of the Mexican Winter League who has found a home in the team's rotation -- and backup catcher Taylor Teagarden, who has had three of his eight hits give the Orioles the lead in extra innings.

They are 24-year-old Chris Tillman, who had more wins in his first 12 starts than the previous three years combined, and 25-year-old Brian Matusz, who has morphed from a disappointment in the rotation into a dominant lefty setup man.

They are senior statesmen like the 42-year-old veteran Jim Thome, and they are rookies like third baseman Manny Machado and pitcher Dylan Bundy, giving the club its first duo of 20-and-under debuts since 1964.

"If you can spend three hours in our dugout, there's about two venues where they can actually be themselves," manager Buck Showalter said of his club's identity. "If you could see that, you could see why I have so much confidence in them. They're a sum of the parts.

"There's not one guy carrying the weight of the world. What weight is there? It's a light weight, OK? We're playing with house money. 'Let's go.' That's the way we look at it."

They say they are having fun, and you believe it when you watch Davis hoist McLouth over his shoulder after a big hit, when Mark Reynolds instigates a sunflower-seed shower in the dugout or when Adam Jones pies the unsuspecting hero of the night. But there is much more to the personality of this O's team than endless games of ping-pong and the bullpen jokingly casting bets as to how long Baltimore's latest extra-innings matchup -- the club has won 16 in a row -- will actually go.

"They've all taken full use of the opportunity," executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, who has been exhaustive in scouring the waivers wires and adding depth throughout the season, said of the club's additions.

"There's a common theme in players we've picked up along the way: They're alert ballplayers, they are hungry ballplayers, they have mental toughness [and] they are hardworking. And that's the type of culture we are trying to reinforce so that we can have a good team year in and year out. We have a core group of players, and we have recalled these other players that have persistence and mental toughness, and that makes for a good team."

Perhaps McLouth wanted it too much in Atlanta, trying too hard to become an immediate impact player that he got out of his lane and never got back on track. It is the only real answer he provides for a mystifying stretch in which he hit for a .229 average with a .335 on-base percentage and a .364 slugging percentage. McLouth also hit 21 home runs and drove in 76 runs in 1,005 plate appearances. He had more homers and RBIs in one season in Pittsburgh than in his 2 1/2 years in Atlanta, and when McLouth re-signed with the Pirates this winter, he called the move "a no-brainer."

But it wasn't a happy reunion, as McLouth struggled to adjust to becoming a part-time player and found himself back home in Tennessee in early June, wondering if this was the end of the line.

"I'm not going to say I was close or serious about it, but it was a thought that crossed my mind," McLouth said of calling it quits. "And I just realized that I wasn't done yet. I still felt like I could play. I still liked preparing and working hard. And I was like, 'Let's still keep going and see where it takes me.'"

It took McLouth to Norfolk on a Minor League deal, where he joined Ford, who had been signed 2 1/2 weeks prior. The pair of outfielders were recalled to Baltimore within a week of each other, with Ford coming first on July 29.

"The first night I got here, I was sitting in my hotel room, and I could see the field down there from [the window]," said Ford, who went 1,774 days between Major League hits. "It was just a beautiful sight. I just felt like I was on top of everything at that moment ... a lot of people have stuck their necks out for me."

There is an appreciation in talking with Ford and McLouth, a second chance they don't take lightly and one that hitting coach Jim Presley quipped doesn't have him worried that they're concerned with a third one.

"Primarily, I think it's an attitude thing," Rays manager Joe Maddon said as he reflected on the other dugout during his club's recent trip to Camden Yards. "The fact that they weren't going to be denied, I kind of see that with them. Even though they might run some guys out there that aren't household names -- we've done that for several years -- they play it right. And if you play it right, you can win."

McLouth -- who has helped bolster the defense -- has hit .274 with six homers since joining the Orioles on Aug. 4, and the arrival of top position prospect Machado several days later further solidified the team's fielding. Thome, who looked to be potentially out for the season with a herniated disk in his neck, has been a lightning rod since he was reinstated Friday. The trio, along with Davis, all homered in Wednesday's 12-2 win over the Blue Jays, helping Baltimore keep pace with the New York Yankees in the American League East.

"It is crazy," Davis said of what has transpired this season. "It's something that I don't think anybody could predict. We haven't done it the most conventional way, we've had a lot of guys step up and really fill some holes for us. We don't have a lot of superstars on this team, but we know how to win and we know how to win as a team."

Baltimore Orioles, Chris Davis, Lew Ford, Brian Matusz, Nate McLouth, Jim Thome, Chris Tillman