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Contenders all year, Orioles just miss playoff return

BALTIMORE -- It was supposed to be the beginning of a long-awaited return to prominence, a magical 2012 season that would start a chain of successive Orioles playoff appearances.

Instead, Baltimore found out firsthand how steep a task it is to repeat success, and an Orioles club that was the underdog darling last October watched its chance disappear in the season's final week. The O's still put together a winning season, their second in 16 years, but it did little to quell the unsettling nature of being left out of the playoffs.

"We know where we want to be, playing games in October," said starter Chris Tillman, who had a career year but, like many of his teammates, wasn't ready to reflect on individual accomplishments. "I'm disappointed that we are not there. We took some steps in the right direction, some not. I think we got some work to do going forward."

Following a run that ended with the American League Division Series last year, the Orioles remained vigilant this past winter in keeping the organization's farm system intact, relying on the team's core -- which will return next season -- to take a step forward.

And in many ways, the O's did. First baseman Chris Davis put on a historical show, leading the Majors in home runs and eclipsing a club record, while Adam Jones had 100-plus RBIs and third baseman Manny Machado proved he's one of baseball's promising young players in his first full season. But for all the good -- Tillman reaching 200 innings and oft-injured Brian Roberts returning to the field -- the O's couldn't replicate their magic of 2012.

All those one-run wins last season (29)? Not the case this year. Closer Jim Johnson, coming off an All-Star season, blew nine saves, and Baltimore struggled to bridge the gap to Johnson. The O's traded relievers Luis Ayala and Pedro Strop, and also acquired starters Scott Feldman and Bud Norris in July to help them turn the corner, but the team's pitching remained suspect.

An Orioles club that led the Majors in home runs struggled with timely hitting down the stretch, with power outages all too often contributing to close losses. The late addition of Michael Morse, as a waiver deal, didn't add any punch, and the O's went backsliding with losses in their final five road games.

"We're disappointed, but I told you many times that one of the most impressive things in team sports to me is people who can consistently be competitive and win," manager Buck Showalter said. "It's hard, hard to do, because I keep telling you how good the competition is. Good baseball people and good players. We want to be a part of putting something out there that our fans can be proud of and trust and look forward to competitive baseball. Now, at some point, we want to graduate. We talk about pitchers being in the process. Sometimes, you have to understand where you are in the process."

Record: 85-77, third in the AL East

Defining moment: In early August, the Orioles, who had won four of five to start their road trip, were swept in a three-game series in Arizona. Those games, which included devastating late-game blown leads in each, would set the tone for a disappointing second half in which the Orioles never got going and played under .500 the rest of the way.

What went right: The defense never wavered, with the Orioles easily eclipsing the Major League record for errorless games played in a season. ... Davis' assault on the history books was awe-inspiring. … Tillman turned into a staff ace, becoming just the fifth O's pitcher since 2001 to hit the 200-inning mark. … The Orioles were able to keep Rule 5 Draft pick T.J. McFarland all year. ... Machado continued his development into a premier player. The 21-year-old All-Star also got a bout of good news on his season-ending knee injury and is expected to be ready next spring. ... Feldman proved to be a solid contributor for the Orioles down the stretch. ... Nate McLouth gave the Orioles another solid season, filling in every day after Nolan Reimold went down with an injury. ... Danny Valencia was a bright spot for a struggling lineup down the stretch, totaling 10 multihit games in a 22-game stretch in September.

What went wrong: Opening Day starter Jason Hammel never looked right and went on the disabled list in late July after a disappointing season. ... Nick Markakis, who had three surgeries in a 12-month span, suffered the longest slump of his career. ... Pitching coach Rick Adair left the team for personal reasons. ... Reimold had his second consecutive season-ending surgery, a procedure on his neck that limited him to a .195/.250/.336 slash line in 40 games. ... Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery in June. ... After winning the final rotation spot this spring, Jake Arrieta pitched to a 7.23 ERA in five starts and was traded to the Cubs. ... The Orioles went 22 consecutive games scoring five runs or fewer, their longest stretch of futility since September 1992. ... The team's record in close games was well under .500.

Biggest surprise: Roberts, written off by many, was a full-go in Spring Training and made the Orioles' Opening Day roster after a litany of injuries the past few seasons. He suffered a right hamstring strain on April 15 and was out until the end of June. Still, Roberts returned, and the veteran stayed healthy and contributed the final three months of the season, no small feat considering his past.

Hitter of the Year: How can it not be Davis, who eclipsed his career high in home runs and RBIs before the first half ended? The 27-year-old's career year will go down in Orioles history.

Pitcher of the Year: Tillman always seemed to step up when the Orioles needed it most, and he will go into Spring Training as the team's No. 1 starter.

Rookie of the Year: Kevin Gausman, who was the O's top Draft pick last year, got his first taste of the big leagues and struggled mightily as a starter. But he settled in later in the season and proved to be an effective bullpen arm in his successive stints.

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.
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