What the Orioles are doing this season would have been inconceivable two years ago. That’s because it’s never been done.
In 2021, the rebuilding Orioles were in their fourth straight year of futility, and the product on the field wasn’t any better than when the reboot began. That club lost 110 games — more than 100 for the third time in four years — and it appeared, at the time, that Baltimore’s rebuild would be longer and more painful than originally hoped.
Underneath those teams, though, was an infrastructure that stayed the course, a farm system ready to burst. After a surprising emergence out of the American League East’s cellar last year, they’ve soared to the top of the circuit this year.
The Orioles’ win over the Houston Astros on Monday was their 94th of the season — 42 more than they had in 2021. The improvement is the greatest in MLB history over a two-year span.
“I mean, if you asked me two years ago?” manager Brandon Hyde said with a laugh when asked whether the turnaround happened faster than he imagined. “Yes. If you asked me two years ago, I would say yes.”
Before these Orioles, only three teams in the past 100 years had improved by 41 games in a two-year span, not including shortened seasons. Each of them did so before 1940, including the 1939 Cincinnati Reds (97-57), 1937 Boston Bees (79-73) and 1927 New York Yankees (110-44), according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Ryan Mountcastle, one of several players who braved the rebuild, said the transformation from laughingstock into AL leaders is “unbelievable.”
“I never would have thought we’d be here,” he said Sunday during the Orioles’ clinch celebration. “After last season, we got a little bit of a taste and just this whole year, we’ve been resilient, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Despite the historic nature of Baltimore’s turnaround, executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said he always believed the success of 2023 would happen, and he isn’t surprised at how quickly it happened.
“If you just keep pushing in the right direction, the door just pops open suddenly,” Elias said.
Outfielder Anthony Santander said he doesn’t think about those rough years much anymore. There’s a more important task at hand, and stacking wins in 2023 is more fun than remembering when they couldn’t in the past.
But the switch-hitter and the other veterans from those rebuild-era teams, especially outfielders Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins, enjoyed the celebration they’ve yearned for since they were youngsters, when Santander predicted in Double-A that the trio would once play alongside one another in the majors.
The champagne tasted a little better because of what they had to go through to get there.
“We learned from that process,” Santander said.
Throughout the early part of the season, Hyde was frequently asked what’s different about the 2023 Orioles compared with previous years. He often answered that these Orioles are simply more talented than those teams.
In Mullins’ estimation, the main difference now is the depth they have, from one through nine in the order and all the way down the bench. On any given night, proved by Sunday’s comeback victory in which a handful of players with wildly different backstories delivered, someone new can make a difference. Their propensity for come-from-behind wins and success in clutch situations has been a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, convincing the club it can overcome any type of adversity.
“When we started realizing that we’re winning a lot of close games,” Mullins said about when he realized the Orioles were pennant contenders. “Won a lot of one-run games, finding ways to win, just over the span of those games we started finding that us finding ways to win makes this team special.
“Somebody finds the way to be the hero for the night, and we know that someone else will take the reins the next day.”
It’s not just the players who suffered through the rebuild who recognize the winning culture Baltimore has built. Jack Flaherty, the club’s top trade deadline acquisition, spent the first nine years of his professional career with the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the National League’s winningest teams, and believes the Orioles’ mentality is the type a team needs to have success.
“These guys believe they’re going to win, no matter what,” he said.
In a weird way, though, the dark days of the past, Mullins and Santander believe, actually prepared them to handle the pressure of sitting atop the AL standings. The club lost four games in a row last week — its longest streak of the season — and it didn’t panic, following it with two vital wins over the Rays.
“I think it puts you in position where you don’t take winning for granted, but you also know how to handle losses,” Mullins said.
With two weeks remaining, the Orioles are within reach of their first AL East title since 2014 with a 2 1/2-game lead over the Rays. With their bounce-back win Saturday and clutch win Sunday, they proved once again they’re not feeling the pressure of what lies ahead.
“We learned from last year, and we just have a good mentality and culture that we have,” Santander said. “We have nothing to lose.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Ruiz contributed to this article.
Orioles at Astros
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