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Richard Justice

Once top-ranked, Orioles are back in the mix

Justice: Once top-ranked, Orioles are back in the mix

Once top-ranked, Orioles are back in the mix
BALTIMORE -- They packed Oriole Park again Saturday night -- 46,298 fans creating a sea of orange and a big-game feel.

"It's electric out there," Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds said.

The Orioles were a long time getting back to this point, back to fighting for first place, and there's still so much baseball to be played that the optimism is, well, cautious.

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"I don't think you can ever look at it as turning a corner," catcher Matt Wieters said. "You just have to keep improving."

Still, it's different than it has been in a long, long time.

"Winning is a series of habits cultivated by organizations," general manager Dan Duquette said. "We are in the process of cultivating a lot of the habits to play and win consistently in the big leagues."

As manager Buck Showalter told a group of fans Saturday afternoon, "So far, so good."

Indeed.

Even after Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Nationals, the Orioles are 40-31. That's their best record after 71 games since 2005.

But their troubles go back much farther. Once one of baseball's crown jewel franchises, the Orioles have had 14 straight losing seasons.

This time, it may be different. Here's hoping anyway. Baseball feels different, better when iconic franchises like the Dodgers and Orioles are winning.

For the Orioles, this season's success has been a series of smart decisions as well as some good old-fashioned growing up.

First, there are players like Adam Jones and Wieters and Jim Johnson and others.

Even when the Orioles were continuing to lose, they were collecting talent. And then came Showalter's hiring in 2010.

He didn't just set higher expectations. He demanded it.

He's intense and thorough in his preparation, and if players want to get better, he can show them the way.

And if they don't?

"You may have to part ways with some people," he said.

He's legendary for his attention to detail. For instance, when he began settling into his new office, he immediately removed a photo of the ballpark.

His objection?

The other team had the bases loaded in the photo, and as he put it, "I'm not going to sit there and look at that."

In addition, he lined the hallways between the clubhouse and the field with photos and quotes of Frank Robinson, Cal Ripken and other Oriole Hall of Famers.

"You can become a prisoner to your past, but at the same time, you have to embrace it," he said. "This place doesn't take a backseat to anyplace with the history and how much this team means to the people here."

The Orioles were first or second in American League attendance during their first six seasons at Camden Yards (1992-1997).

But attendance dropped dramatically in recent years as the team failed to compete. Saturday's sellout was the fifth of the season.

"This is a long process for us to regain their trust," Showalter said.

Duquette was hired as general manager last winter and immediately made two terrific moves, trading for pitcher Jason Hammel and signing free-agent Wei-Yin Chen.

They're a combined 15-5. Behind them is a bullpen Showalter has maneuvered expertly to get the ball in the hands of closer Jim Johnson. Baltimore's 2.33 bullpen ERA is the best in the Major Leagues.

What is impossible to know is how the Orioles will hold up as the season grinds on, exposing some of the holes in the lineup and the back of the rotation.

"We have young ball players," Duquette said. "We have some power. We're going to need a little bit more discipline to get on base. We're going to need to keep our pitchers healthy. We do have some of the key pieces we need to stay in the race."

They've scored just eight runs in their last six games, but every team has dry spells. It's how they deal with them and how they move forward that counts.

After Saturday's loss, Jones walked through the clubhouse and tried to set a tone.

"Throw the game away," he announced. "It's over with. Let's get the series win tomorrow."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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