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Talent, steady guidance spawned O's rise

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles started 2012 with relatively low expectations from outsiders and a last-place finish in the American League East predicted by most media outlets and national pundits.

But the season that followed never saw Baltimore in the AL East basement, as the O's -- above .500 the entire 162-game regular-season schedule -- spent 63 calendar days in first place, capturing the organization's first playoff berth in 15 years.

The Orioles won their first postseason game since 1997 in the first year featuring an extra Wild Card team in each league, defeating the Texas Rangers on the road, with left-handed starter Joe Saunders playing the part of unlikely hero.

Saunders picked up his first career win at Rangers Ballpark, where he had been 0-6 with a 9.38 ERA in six career starts, and closer Jim Johnson finished off a 5-1 victory to advance the Orioles to the AL Division Series. Facing the New York Yankees -- who had the best record in the AL -- the O's lost the ALDS in five games, ending the success of a wild ride that owner Peter Angelos proclaimed would only be the beginning of the Orioles' return to baseball prominence.

The organization, in its 59th season in Baltimore, celebrated the 20th season of the famed Oriole Ballpark at Camden Yards with upgrades around the stadium and statues of some of the club's legendary players.

There was also plenty to celebrate in the present, with the Major League debut of top prospects Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy, along with the success of rookie pitchers Wei-Yin Chen -- a Taiwanese lefty signed out of Japan -- and Miguel Gonzalez, who emerged as a stable cog in the rotation after not even being in big league camp.

The turnaround was led by manager Buck Showalter, who helped engineer the 93-69 campaign in his second full season, with executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette taking over for president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail in November 2011. Duquette made lots of smaller moves that paid off well, including trading for pitcher Jason Hammel and signing outfielder Nate McLouth, with little fanfare from the rest of the baseball world.

And while Duquette and Showalter are facing a tough task in trying to recreate that magic in a stacked AL East, there is optimism that 2012 was just the start of better baseball in Baltimore. Here is one final look back at a memorable 2012 season, highlighted by the top five storylines of the year.

5. Locking up Adam Jones

Just how important was it to sign Jones to a long-term deal?

"Dude rang the cash register every time he hit a home run," Duquette quipped of the center fielder, who got off to a hot start to the season before signing a six-year extension on May 27. "I mean, Adam kind of forced the issue, didn't he?"

Jones' $85.5 million deal is the largest contract in team history and was a sign of the Orioles committing to their young core in earnest. The media-voted Most Valuable Oriole in back-to-back seasons, Jones is a fan favorite and a fixture in the Baltimore community. The 26-year-old's willingness to stay signaled a proud day for the organization, with Orioles fans and players buoyed by what was deemed a "historic day" for Baltimore.

4. Wacky, yet wonderful: The surprise contributors

There was no use explaining it, with statisticians and reporters pointing out the Orioles' flaws and waiting for the team to drop off. There was that pesky negative run differential and a revolving-door rotation. And who could forget former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine saying the Orioles weren't good; they were just lucky?

It just added fuel to the fire for Showalter's group, an eclectic collection of unprovens, castoffs, rookies and veterans who formed a tight-knit clubhouse. The Orioles used 52 players in 2012, adopting a "sum-of-their-parts" approach that helped keep the club relaxed when the pressure was on. Everyone from 42-year-old veteran Jim Thome to Rule 5 Draft pick Ryan Flaherty played starring roles in certain games, with in-season additions ranging from the independent leagues (outfielder Lew Ford) to McLouth, who was released from the Pirates and helped the team overcome injuries to Brian Roberts, Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold.

Right-hander Chris Tillman emerged from Triple-A Norfolk in July and flourished -- along with Gonzalez and Chen -- and infielder/outfielder Chris Davis pitched the Orioles to an extra-innings win at Fenway Park in one of the most memorable games of the year. Darren O'Day, an offseason waiver claim, became one of the team's best relief options, and starter Brian Matusz excelled as a late-innings lefty in the postseason. Closer Jim Johnson set a new Orioles single-season record with 51 saves in his first year as the team's full-time closer.

3. Manny time

When Machado made his professional debut on Aug. 9, he got two hits, including a triple, and scored a run, leading the home crowd to chant "Man-ny" as soon as he stepped into the batter's box. The cheers never went away for the 20-year-old Machado, who made the jump from Double-A Bowie and moved from shortstop to third base with astounding ease.

Machado's arrival coincided with the Orioles' turnaround defensively, with the third baseman ensuring that Mark Reynolds' move to first base was permanent. In addition, the acquisition of McLouth put a former Gold Glove Award winner in left field. Reynolds worked hard to become an above-average first baseman, while Machado wowed from the hot corner, pulling off a pump-fake on Sept. 13 that left the crowd, the opposition and his own teammates in awe.

Machado's arrival energized fans and -- coupled with the following month's promotion of Bundy -- gave Baltimore a glimpse of how exciting the future could be.

2. The Buck truck

Showalter finished second in AL Manager of the Year voting, and his face was adorned on signs, T-shirts and buildings all over Baltimore during the final stretch of the season.

The Orioles enjoyed a 24-game improvement from 2011, winning 46 road games -- most in the AL -- and going an astounding 29-9 in one-games, the best record in the Majors.

Showalter took great in care in keeping his relievers fresh, and that effort made Baltimore a formidable opponent and covered for a shaky rotation. The Orioles did not lose a regular-season game in which they were leading after seven innings, leading to their unprecedented winning percentage in one-run games and ensuring that late-game leads held up. The O's also won 16 consecutive extra-innings games to close out the season.

As much as Showalter tries to deflect praise, the culture shift and turnaround started with him.

1. A September to remember, and beyond

September swoon? Hardly.

The Orioles clinched their first non-losing season since 1997 on Sept. 13, winning their 81st game on Machado's walk-off single in the bottom of the 14th inning against the Tampa Bay Rays. Baltimore reeled off six straight wins from Sept. 16-22 and mashed seven home runs in a win over Toronto on Sept. 26.

The O's went 19-9 in September and secured one of the AL's two Wild Card spots to earn some long-awaited October baseball. In the payoff for an incredible season, the Orioles had packed houses and an electric atmosphere for both of their playoff games at Camden Yards.

The challenge in 2013? Make it even better.

Baltimore Orioles, Wei-Yin Chen, Chris Davis, Jim Johnson, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Brian Matusz, Nate McLouth, Chris Tillman