After winning the AL East in 1997, the Orioles finished no higher than third in the division in each of the ensuing 14 years.
Heading into this season, expectations were that the status quo would hold for the Orioles. The cellar of the AL East was to be their home once again.
Now we know better. The Orioles still have a shot at winning the AL East, and they've made it clear enough along the way this season that they're not to be underestimated heading into the playoffs.
Of course, people still underestimate them anyway, in no small part because the Orioles don't feature a star-studded starting pitching staff. Surely that will keep them out of the World Series, right?
Ripken isn't so sure. He refused to characterize Baltimore's starting pitching as "weak," crediting the team for continuing to come up with solid starters despite oftentimes desperate circumstances.
Plus, the starting pitchers the Orioles have used this season have done a fine job of at least putting the team in a position to win games once the club's "lights-out" bullpen takes over.
This is a bullpen, by the way, that leads the AL with 32 wins. All those wins aren't there without the team's ability to win close games, and that's a quality that Ripken very much appreciates:
The cool part about this team is that they’re very comfortable playing in a tight game...I think that’s one of the few things that [can allow] your confidence to roll over. When you find yourself in those games where you’ve had success before, you have a little bit more confidence that things will turn out. Then you’ll be able to relax and execute. When things are going bad, you tend to put pressure on yourself and worry what can happen next.
The proof of Baltimore's collective clutch gene is plainly evident. The O's are 28-9 in one-run games, and 16-2 in extra-inning games. To use Ripken's words, "They’ve really figured out how to capture lightning."
The Orioles' ability to win the close ones isn't the only reason they can work wonders in the postseason. They also have a revived fanbase at their back.