'We’re not done yet': O's clinch AL East title with win No. 100

Baltimore captures franchise's first division crown since 2014, earns top seed for AL playoffs

September 29th, 2023

BALTIMORE -- Adam Frazier again stood in the back corner of the clubhouse passing out cigars. Every member of Baltimore’s roster was already donning orange shirts, backwards hats and green goggles as the music blared through the plastic-covered room.

The Orioles knew how celebrations worked now. And this time, the champagne bottles had specialty labels -- ones that read: “American League East Division champs.”

“Pretty damn awesome,” a smiling Frazier said.

Eleven days after securing a postseason berth for the first time since 2016, Baltimore accomplished its next goal on Thursday night. For the 10th time in team history -- and the first since ‘14 -- the O’s won the AL East title with a 2-0 victory over the Red Sox at Camden Yards.

Baltimore, which has won 100 games for the sixth time (and the first since going 100-62 in 1980), will be the No. 1 seed in the AL, meaning it will get a bye for the best-of-three Wild Card Series and open its postseason in the Division Series. (Games 1 and 2 are Oct. 7 and 8 at Camden Yards.)

  • Games remaining (3): vs. BOS (3)
  • Standings update: The Orioles (100-59) have clinched the AL East title and the No. 1 seed in the AL. They will receive a bye for the best-of-three Wild Card Series and advance directly to the best-of-five Division Series, which will begin Oct. 7 at Camden Yards. Baltimore will play the winner of the Wild Card Series between No. 4 Tampa Bay and the No. 5 seed (Texas, Houston or Seattle).

“Honestly, our goal at the beginning of the year was just to play every game to the best of our ability and just see how the results turned out,” catcher Adley Rutschman said. “It’s tough, because our division is so good, to set our sights on that, because we hadn’t reached that.”

General manager Mike Elias even publicly set the Orioles’ goals a bit lower at the Winter Meetings last December, when he stated he thought a return to the postseason was a strong possibility, but conceded that it would be tough for Baltimore to win a challenging AL East.

Tampa Bay, Toronto and New York were widely expected to contend. Some may have thought Boston had a chance, too.

The Orioles -- despite coming off an impressive 83-79 showing in 2022 -- weren’t given much consideration as a possible AL East challenger. A potential Wild Card team? Sure. But probably not a division champion.

FanGraphs’ preseason ZiPS projections had Baltimore going 80-82. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system had the Orioles finishing last in the AL East at 74-88. Fans would have trouble digging up prediction stories that thought the O’s would win the division, as few (if any) exist.

“Everybody picked us last to start the year,” Frazier said. “Nobody believed in us.”

Added manager Brandon Hyde: “Nobody was giving us a chance to win. It was in every publication everywhere that we were going to regress, and I wanted our guys to know that. They took it personal.”

The Orioles never let the outside noise affect their preparations for the 2023 season. They came to Spring Training confident that their young core would allow them to build upon their turnaround ‘22 campaign, which came after they endured an AL-high 110 losses in ‘21.

Even though Baltimore started strong this season, Tampa Bay -- which opened the year with 13 consecutive wins -- used a stellar first three months to jump out to an early lead in the AL East race. The Rays led the division by 6 1/2 games on July 1, and it appeared they had a chance to go wire to wire.

However, the O’s didn’t let that happen. The turning point came July 20-23, when Baltimore entered a four-game series at Tropicana Field tied atop the AL East, took three of four from Tampa Bay and departed with a two-game division lead -- one it never surrendered.

“At that point, you’re sitting there with the best record in the [AL], you had the farm system that we have, the depth. It’s like, ‘Why not?’ at that point,” Elias said. “That’s when it really became real.”

In recent years (even 2022), AL East games were daunting tasks for the Orioles. Their roster didn’t quite stack up to those of their division rivals.

That’s no longer the case. And because of that, Baltimore has fared much better in divisional games this season, going 31-18 thus far:

  • vs. Rays: 8-5 (first time O’s won season series since 2016)
  • vs. Blue Jays: 10-3 (first time since ‘17)
  • vs. Yankees: 7-6 (first time since ‘16)
  • vs. Red Sox: 6-4 with three to play (would be first time since ‘17)

“I think that’s where the organization turned the corner, was being able to win the games in the AL East,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “I felt like we played really good baseball last year, but still, it was hard to win those close games with the in-division teams.”

The division-clinching victory was the perfect example of that improvement. Anthony Santander hit a first-inning homer, marking the game’s only run until Heston Kjerstad’s RBI double in the eighth. The Orioles’ pitching staff made that lead stand up with 5 1/3 solid innings from right-hander Dean Kremer and 3 2/3 lights-out frames by the bullpen.

After Tyler Wells got Trevor Story to ground out to end the game, Baltimore’s celebration began. Orange fireworks shot off and confetti was launched into the stands. The Oriole Bird circled the warning track with a flag, and players grabbed AL East championship banners, including two that were draped over the shoulders of Hays and Wells.

“It’s tough to believe it,” said Santander, who has been with Baltimore since 2017. “Every single year, you always come into Spring Training with the mentality to win, and I think the organization did a great job putting this team together.

“And we did the job.”

There’s a consensus, though: the Orioles’ job isn’t finished. They’re preparing for a deep run through October. As a team that hasn’t lost more than four consecutive games all season -- or been swept in 91 consecutive multi-game series dating back to May 2022 -- it appears to have the moxie for postseason success.

“We’ve got a pretty good squad,” Kremer said. “We’ve got an offense that will put up runs when they need to, and we’ve got a pitching staff that will put up zeros when they need to. I think we’ve got a chance at the title.”

As Thursday night’s celebration winded down, a handful of Baltimore players sat near the pool table and decompressed following another fun night for the team.

The O’s are planning on many more.

“It’s everything we’ve worked so hard for and everything we’ve turned the team around for. It’s just what you dream of as a baseball player, to accomplish this with your team,” Hays said. “But we’re not done yet.”