O's-Rays duel exemplifies life in balanced AL East
ST. PETERSBURG -- As the song goes, love is lovelier the second time around. And when it comes to baseball, that second time is just as wonderful, but unbelievably difficult to attain.
The Orioles went to the postseason for the first time since 1997 last year, snapped a depressing skid of 14 consecutive losing seasons, and are determined to prove that 2012 wasn't an aberration.
Duplicating or improving on last season might not be as easy as landing the 2012 Wild Card berth. The Orioles beat Texas in the American League Wild Card playoff, then pushed the Yankees to five games before being ousted in the Division Series.
History tells us repeating or even improving after such a smashing season is often evasive.
The Orioles came to Tropicana Field on Friday night for a weekend series with the Rays nestled in third place behind the first-place Red Sox and second-place Yankees in the rugged AL East. The Red Sox are as big a surprise this year as Baltimore was last.
"On paper and by history, yes, it's more difficult," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has one of the most potent offenses in the Major Leagues. "But this team stays in the moment. They don't say, 'This means that, and that means this, or that should happen tomorrow.'
"There are really no Cinderellas in baseball. Your level is always dictated by how well you pitch."
Friday night's game was typical of how difficult it is to repeat. And, as Showalter said, all about pitching.
The Orioles, who had won 11 of 16, sent seven-game winner Jason Hammel to the mound against 24-year-old rookie Chris Archer.
Hammel pitched a magnificent game, but Archer was a tad better.
Desmond Jennings' two-run homer to center field in the seventh inning propelled Tampa Bay to a narrow 2-1 victory.
"The AL East is by far the best division," said Hammel, who allowed just six hits over 6 2/3 innings. "You never know what you're going to get any night -- five quality teams. You have to tip your cap to Chris. He was able to make his pitches when he needed to and keep our guys off balance. We have one of the best offenses in the league and it's not easy to hold it to just two hits."
Archer allowed a third-inning RBI single to Manny Machado and a fifth-inning double to Ryan Flaherty. That was it for his seven innings of work.
"It was one of those special nights that you have to try to tap into every game," said Archer of his second start of the season. "I was able to tap into it from pitch one tonight."
The two hits were a season low for the Orioles.
When Sparky Anderson was managing the Cincinnati Reds, who won the World Series in 1975 and '76, then faltered, he said teams often forget what it took to string together great seasons.
"He's right, but that's after they'd won world championships," said Showalter. "I think one of the things I respect most are teams that win consistently. It's so difficult."
The mentality of a team comes into play, especially when the players have the notion they are owed something based on their performance during the the prior season.
Showalter said when the Orioles lost to the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS, they weren't patting themselves on the back, talking about the great strides the team made.
"No, they want to roll the dice again," Showalter said. "They know it's going to be tough. Nobody's going away in this tough division."
The Rays, virtual doormats since their inception, won the AL pennant in 2008 before losing to the Phillies in the World Series.
"After going to the postseason [after all those losing seasons], you're not sneaking up on anybody," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "The big difference with us in 2009 was we didn't get off to a good start and were playing catch-up the whole time. They haven't gotten off to a bad start and that's helped the Orioles.
"I don't know that it's tougher. Maybe it was a hangover for us in 2009. When we came to Spring Training, we were obviously treated differently because we went to the World Series. All of those things were factors."
The AL East is so strong, with only a few games separating the top four teams, the margin of error is miniscule.
That was so obvious at the Trop on Friday night.
When Hammel pitches as well as he did, the Orioles should win.
The problem is, it doesn't always happen that way.
"There's a fine line there in a game like that," said Showalter. "Mistakes get magnified ... You have two good teams that played a close game and pitched well on both sides. There's a small margin of error and there aren't a whole lot of errorless teams on the planet. They pitched just a tad better and made two less mistakes."
For the Orioles, Friday night was an excruciating loss. An hour after the game, there was determination about the next game.
"Tomorrow, we're going to go out there and get a couple more runs," said Machado.
And forget about Friday night.
Showalter likes his players so much, the clubhouse chemistry, he said: "If I weren't their manager, or so old , I wouldn't mind hanging out with them. They keep me young, make me want to go to work every day just to have a belly laugh with them. But they're very serious about the right things. If you're sitting there ultra-serious every second of the day, it wears on you."
And it's that mindset stressed by their skipper that the Orioles must possess if they're going to make 2013 as successful as the year before.