It's also fun because it is so improbable. These Orioles are a sabermetric nightmare, with a run differential of minus-6 through 152 games, which projects to a losing record. They have one starting pitcher, Wei-Yin Chen, who will throw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. They are ninth in the league in runs scored, seventh in OPS; their starters have the ninth-best starters' ERA (4.52) and are 10th in quality starts. On Sunday, the five-hole hitter was Lew Ford, 36, who last played in the Majors with the Twins in 2007 and whose route since then took him to Japan, Triple-A, Mexico, retirement, and, this spring, the independent Long Island Ducks.
But this is not about logic or probability. "This team is about going out and playing as hard as it can every day," says Mark Reynolds. When the Orioles decided to bring up 20-year-old Manny Machado in his second full professional season and move him to third base, Reynolds moved to first and has been an pennant-race anchor. Was Machado fazed? "Moving from short to third can be a little difficult, because you don't see the ball off the bat and it comes so fast at you," Machado says. "But I watch where Matt Wieters sets up and I have a pretty good idea what the pitch is going to be and what can happen."
"Manny's one of those very rare kids who can slow the game down," says Buck Showalter. "He's got one of those internal clocks."
Saturday's win was the Orioles' 16th straight in extra innings. Sunday's 3-2 loss was their ninth in 36 one-run games. "We have a very good bullpen, with Jim Johnson great at the end," says Showalter, referring to the Major League saves leader. "Our star players like Adam Jones and Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy are good, they play really hard and they expect to win. We lost a lot when Nick Markakis got hurt, but we keep going out there with the best we have every day."
The key is that they expect to win. When Showalter took over as manager at the beginning of August 2010, the Orioles were in the midst of their 13th straight losing season since Davey Johnson was dismissed after a 98-64 record and wire-to-wire first-place finish in 1997. Showalter inherited a team that not only hadn't had a winning record since then, but had averaged more than 90 losses a season.
A week into the job, Showalter said, "There are some really good players here, guys who know how to play. But they've been so beaten down that they don't know how good they can be. My job isn't cutoffs and hit-and-runs and when to take out pitchers, it is to restore their self-esteem."
With the possibility of a Johnson-Showalter Beltways Classic, the restoration of self-esteem in D.C., which hasn't been in the postseason since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first year in office, and to an Orioles franchise and fan base that made us thankful to be a country boy, is one of dreams. Ah, to reunite Reynolds and UVA teammate Ryan Zimmerman...
"It's almost as if I fell into a dream situation," says Joe Saunders, picked up by Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette in the scramble to have enough pitching to get to the final day of the season. "This is so much fun. I'm not even thinking about how we got here. I'm just enjoying the ride."
Saunders joined the team and watched it win an 18-inning game last week in Seattle. Before he could digest his teammates' reminiscences of a 17-inning game in Boston on May 6 in which Chris Davis relieved and hit 93 on the radar gun and Jones won with a homer off Darnell McDonald (don't even try to sing along), he went out, started and the O's won in extra innings -- again. Then they flew all night to Boston, with 19-year old Dylan Bundy, in his first full professional season, in the rear of the plane. They needed pitching bodies, and Bundy was a very impressive body pitching in the instructional league.
"This is a great experience for me, I'm very fortunate," says the 42-year old Thome. "To have a chance to be in another pennant race with a bunch of tremendous teammates in a great baseball town? Tough to beat."
Showalter believes Thome's presence has been a calming factor. "It's special to be around a person like him," says rookie Ryan Flaherty. "You cannot meet a better person. And a Hall of Famer, as well."
In August, when Thome was on the disabled list because of herniated disc in his neck, Showalter asked him if he would drive 40 minutes to Bowie, Md., to see Bundy pitch a 6 p.m. game so the manager could get an opinion from a certain Hall of Fame hitter who is seventh on the all-time home run list. Thome came in and did his rehab workout early, drove to Bowie, watched five innings and was back on the Camden Yards bench by the sixth inning cheering for his teammates. "Believe me, every player noticed," says Showalter.
That is who Jim Thome is. When asked for the most memorable moment of his career, he answered, "After the 2006 season, the Hall of Fame wanted the ball from my 600th home run. I drove my father to Cooperstown. We sat on the porch of the Otesaga Hotel for hours in the morning, looking out at that beautiful lake, my dad and I knowing that in a few hours we were going to put that ball into the Hall of Fame. That is the greatest moment of my career. I still get chills and goosebumps every time I think about it."
On Saturday, Thome was activated and doubled in the winning run in the 12th inning. On Sunday he doubled again in a one-run game.
"Is this logical? I don't know," says Showalter.
What happened to a great Orioles team in Game 6 of the 1997 American League Championship Series against the Indians, when, among many things, Mike Mussina threw a one-hit shutout over eight innings and they ended up losing in 11, defied logic. Sometimes real-life baseball is a John R. Tunis children's novel.