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In memorable '14 season, Orioles reclaim AL East

Cruz, pitching staff, role players lead Showalter's club to ALCS berth @Britt_Ghiroli

BALTIMORE -- 2014 was good to the Orioles.

Think back to January, before they had made any major moves and fans were clamoring over the slow offseason. How could this team possibly get back to the playoffs the way things stood?

BALTIMORE -- 2014 was good to the Orioles.

Think back to January, before they had made any major moves and fans were clamoring over the slow offseason. How could this team possibly get back to the playoffs the way things stood?

But executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette's patience paid off and Baltimore signed Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez late in the offseason, sending the message that it was all-in for 2014. And while Jimenez didn't work out as planned, Cruz had a career year and helped lead the O's to their first American League East title since 1997.

Without Matt Wieters, Manny Machado and Chris Davis, the Orioles swept the Tigers in the AL Division Series and advanced to the AL Championship Series, where they were swept in four games by the Royals to end a terrific run. The pitching staff flourished under new pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti and first-year closer Zach Britton kept the ninth inning in check as the O's pulled away from the rest of the division in the second half.

2014 Year in Review and 2015 outlook

So, what now? What should O's fans make of yet another quiet winter in which Cruz is gone along with longtime Oriole Nick Markakis? Duquette has mentioned numerous times he's confident in the team's core players, and while additions are necessary, the O's don't feel as if they are far off from contending once again.

Before any of that plays out, however, it is worthwhile to take a look back at the top five Orioles storylines of 2014 -- what went right, what went wrong, and what hints the team provided as to its future path. In no particular order, these headlines all shaped the fate of last season's club.

5. Spring spending

First there was Jimenez, who signed a four-year, $50 million deal. Days later, the Orioles agreed to a one-year, $8 million bargain for Cruz. Duquette made the uncharacteristic move of giving up a pair of Draft picks to sign the free agents and preached that the team's window to win was now.

The Cruz move helped carry the offense through rough stretches and he was named Most Valuable Oriole by members of the local media. It's tough to envision what the season would have been had it not been for Cruz.

4. A suspended slugger

The Davis story rocked the area, and the baseball world in general, when news broke Sept. 12 that the All-Star was hit with a 25-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy.

Video: Orioles' Postseason plans impacted by loss of Davis

Davis, who led the Major Leagues in home runs with 53 and RBIs with 138 in 2013, issued a statement through the MLB Players Association shortly after the news broke.

"I apologize to my teammates, coaches, the Orioles organization and especially the fans," Davis said. "I made a mistake by taking Adderall. I had permission to use it in the past, but do not have a therapeutic-use exemption [TUE] this year. I accept my punishment and will begin serving my suspension immediately."

Davis has a TUE for next season and he's got quite a bit of motivation given how last season unfolded. Even without the suspension, which cost him all of the team's postseason games and will see him sit out Opening Day in 2015, Davis was having a forgettable year at the plate. He hit .196 with 26 homers and 72 RBIs before being suspended.

3. Season-ending injuries to superstars

Part of the reason the Davis suspension hurt so badly was that the Orioles were already missing All-Stars Machado and Wieters. Perhaps nothing shaped the season more than the pair of key injuries which showed just how much moxie the 2014 Orioles club had.

Video: Orioles preparing to move on without Machado

First there was Wieters, off to a career year offensively, who underwent Tommy John surgery in early June. Machado, who missed the first month of the season rehabbing back from knee surgery, learned in August that he had to have the same procedure on the other knee. The Orioles, who were competitive all season, were written off by many in the media after the huge losses.

2. Unsung heroes

Steve Pearce. Delmon Young. Alejandro De Aza. Britton. Darren O'Day. At times, the entire starting rotation. The only way the Orioles were able to cover for the loss of Wieters, Machado and Davis was to have others step up.

Rookie catcher Caleb Joseph did just that and Duquette wisely traded for Nick Hundley to add another backstop to the mix. Pearce had a career year and Young produced some of the team's biggest hits. A late move after the Trade Deadline, De Aza gave the O's a lift while Britton stepped in to the ninth-inning role with ease. He formed a formidable team with O'Day, one that got stronger with July's trade for Andrew Miller, and the rotation went on a tear from late June on that kept Baltimore alive even when its bats went quiet.

Video: DET@BAL Gm2: Young drills go-ahead, three-run double

The depth Duquette has preached was on full display from the season's midway point on and the Orioles kept winning with a new hero each night.

1. The Oriole Way rises again

As Baltimore slowly pulled away in September it became increasingly apparent that it wasn't jockeying for a playoff spot: It was in the driver's seat. And the "if" quickly became a "when" in regards to the AL East title, which the city triumphantly welcomed back following Sept. 16's 8-2 win over Toronto.

Pearce homered early and De Aza had a three-run triple to put the game away in the seventh, a fitting way to cap one of the most memorable games in recent Baltimore baseball history. The awards flooded in for Duquette (a two-time winner of Executive of the Year awards) while Buck Showalter was named the AL Manager of the Year in a season reminiscent of Baltimore's glory days.

Video: TOR@BAL: O's clinch first AL East title since 1997

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

Baltimore Orioles, Alejandro De Aza, Zach Britton, Nelson Cruz, Chris Davis, Nick Hundley, Ubaldo Jimenez, Caleb Joseph, Manny Machado, Nick Markakis, Andrew Miller, Darren O'Day, Steve Pearce, Matt Wieters, Delmon Young