I suppose that technically the Baltimore Orioles began the most recent “era” without Nick Markakis in Sunday’s 13-3 loss to New York. (For what it’s worth, Nate McLouth went 0-for-2 with two walks and a run scored in Markakis’ stead hitting lead off.) However now that the dust has settled following an off day, we really begin the final stretch run for the Orioles to reach the playoffs in 2012. That stretch run of course will come without Markakis’ services. And that stretch run begins tonight with a three-game set with the Tampa Rays, who currently trail the Orioles by one game in the American League East.
I would call this stretch run the “final” test, because this team has passed almost every test that it’s been given thus far in 2012. The season began with a platoon at second base. Then it seemed that there were guys either getting injured or being sent down due to ineffectiveness all over the place. Suddenly the Orioles got a boost from the return of Brian Roberts, only to have him eventually go away again. The starting pitching collapsed, and the Orioles had more holes to plug. Nick Markakis was injured in June, at which point the Birds started to struggle. Many people said that their improbable run was over…yet it wasn’t. The Fighting Showalters fought on, and kept their heads above water. After the break Markakis returned, and has been spectacular in the lead off spot ever since. Of course there was that challenging stretch in August that was supposed to break their backs when they played Detroit, Texas, and the ChiSox…yet the Birds are still here. Labor Day weekend they went to NY, which was supposed to be the end as well…still here. Now the Orioles find themselves at another crossroads, facing life without Markakis again…
…my point is that this entire season has been challenge after challenge after challenge. In no way am I suggesting that each and every challenge that’s been put in front of this team has been met, because even they would tell you that’s not the case. Texas was a thorn in their side both series’ they played with them, as have been the Anaheim Angels. But you don’t find yourself in a pennant race this far into the season without meeting most of the challenges that are thrown at you. This is just the latest, and given the number of games left probably the final one.
I keep coming back to game 162 of last year, which in my opinion was the basis for this season’s improbable run. (And ironically, Nick Markakis came out of that game early after pulling a muscle in his abdomen – which would later require surgery. So that final frenzy of action that ultimately defeated the Boston Red Sox occurred without him.) That personifies the spirit of “playing until the end.” As I’ve said in the past, some of the personnel was different at that time but the core of the team is the same. These are the “Fighting Showalters,” and at the very least they’re going to play the game to the last out.
With Tampa coming in this week, I would remind people that the Orioles did in fact take two-of-three from them at the beginning of August at the Trop. That series was headlined by a dramatic 1-0 win in extra innings in the final game on a 10th inning homer by Taylor Teagarden. In case you forgot, he’s the backup catcher folks. This season has been about improbable hero’s and no-name guys coming through in the clutch when needed. The Orioles are currently a game ahead of Tampa in the AL East as well as the wild card standings (and a game back of NY in the AL East). So this series means just as much as the series with New York this past weekend for the O’s. The O’s will send Jason Hammel back to the bump tonight, of course coming off of that great performance last week on Cal Ripken night. Tampa will counter with Matt Moore. If you really want more proof that the Orioles can continue to contend and/or pass this final test (life without Markakis again), look no further than the New York Yankees. Given that they’ll be without Mark Teixiera for the next two weeks, doesn’t that sort of re-even things out again?
In closing, I want to remember the victims and their families on this 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. We should also remember the incredible acts of heroism that we saw then and in the wake of those tragic events, especially the brave men and women on Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. May God bless all who suffered that day, and may he continue to bless America.