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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

O's confident they'll be back in the hunt

After ending 14-year streak of losing seasons, Baltimore eyes deeper run

O's confident they'll be back in the hunt play video for O's confident they'll be back in the hunt

SARASOTA, Fla. -- As Spring Trainings go, the Baltimore Orioles hardly could have had a better one. Let's count the ways.

First, there's a sense of unfinished business. The Orioles made the playoffs last year for the first time since 1997, but their season ended with a Game 5 American League Division Series loss to the Yankees.

"Since last year, when the season ended, I think we've all been waiting quietly for this point in time to really start off with what we left out there last year," closer Jim Johnson said.

Second, in a division in which every other team made significant changes, the O's return their core guys. And they'll have almost all of them -- Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Johnson and others -- for at least two more years.

Having gone through some tough years together and then having emerged as one of baseball's best teams last season has created a bond. These guys like one another, root for one another and drive one another.

"It was like a class reunion in the locker room [when we got here]," manager Buck Showalter said. "They respect each other and want to do what it takes to continue where we left off last year."

Finally, the Orioles have pitching depth, lots of it, including two of baseball's best pitching prospects, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, both of whom will start the 2013 season at Double-A Bowie. When someone mentions that Bowie, Md., is a short drive from Camden Yards, Showalter smiles.

"It sure is," he said.

These O's also seem to love their underdog status, that is, the widespread belief that they can't repeat last season's magic.

And it was magical.

They were 29-9 in one-run games, the best winning percentage (.763) ever in such contests, and they were 16-2 in extra-inning games.

They used 52 players, and 19 pitchers got at least one victory. They also won 46 games on the road, most in the AL.

They finished fast, too, going 38-18 down the stretch.

When everything, absolutely everything, has broken right in a single season, can it happen all over again?

"These guys love people doubting them," Showalter said. "They get each other and what each other brings. When someone walks in that locker room, whether it's a Minor League player or a six-year free agent, they're eyeballing them, 'Hey, can you bring what we need?' This spring has verified what I thought of our players."

Executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, in his first year with the Orioles, did an amazing job finding players, including a long list of those who'd been released by other teams. Can he do it again?

Better yet, does Duquette need to do it again? The O's believe they're still headed upward because their best position players -- Jones, Wieters, Markakis, etc.-- are still in the prime years of their career, and because they've got a bunch of young pitchers -- Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, Gausman, Bundy -- who have a chance to get better.

Duquette hasn't stopped doing his thing, either. Last season, he got nice contributions from outfielder Nate McLouth and right-hander Miguel Gonazlez after they'd been released by other teams. Veterans Randy Wolf, Jim Thome, Lew Ford, Joe Saunders and Endy Chavez also passed through the Baltimore clubhouse at various points.

Duquette appears to have found another surprise contributor in right-hander Jair Jurrjens, 27, who was a National League All-Star for the Braves in 2011 and is making a steady recovery from knee surgery that may have inflated his numbers last season. Jurrjens will begin the season in the Minor Leagues, but his velocity has been so good this spring that the Orioles have high hopes for him.

Last season broke a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons for the Orioles, and when it ended, owner Peter Angelos signed Duquette and Showalter to extensions through the 2018 season.

For a franchise that once had a revolving door of executives and managers, there's a sense of growth and continuity. Showalter was curious to see how his players would react this spring after last season's success. Would they be satisfied? Would they still be as hungry to win as they had been?

"They verified what I was hoping to see," Showalter said. "It's a mentality. A lot of times you get to Spring Training and the feeling is, 'Golly, the offseason is already over.' That wasn't the case at all here. When you get your nose bloodied together for that long, are you going to just sit there and bleed or are you doing to do something about it?"

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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