ST. PETERSBURG -- The Orioles were rewarded on Sunday night with the franchise's first playoff berth in 15 years, as the Angels' loss to the Rangers in the nightcap of a doubleheader ensured the O's dream year will continue past the regular season.
While Baltimore is still focusing on what it will take to win the American League East, here is a look back at 10 reasons why, as manager Buck Showalter said, the O's have a chance to better that opportunity.
The continued improvement of Adam Jones, who signed a contract extension in the middle of this season, didn't just give the Orioles some peace of mind. As first-year executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette quipped, "The dude rang the cash register every time he hit a home run." And the 26-year-old outfielder kept it up long after signing a $85.5 million deal that will keep him in Baltimore through 2018. Of Jones' team-leading 32 homers, 16 gave the Orioles a lead. A vocal leader, the All-Star continues to solidify himself as one of the game's premier center fielders and was voted the Most Valuable Oriole for the second time in as many seasons by members of the local media.
Getting some relief
The Orioles are an astonishing 73-0 when leading after seven innings, and while closer Jim Johnson is a big part of that, the remaining members of the relief corps -- largely unsung -- deserve a lot of credit. Righties Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala consistently came through in big spots, while Brian Matusz emerged as a late-inning lefty and Troy Patton enjoyed a successful season in a variety of roles. Setup man Pedro Strop, despite his late-season struggles, was dominant for three-fourths of the year and the O's bullpen made leads matter.
Showalter was careful in using the relievers, and his diligence was rewarded with an effort that has stood up over an entire season. Catcher Matt Wieters, who surged to a productive September at the plate, has handled a pitching staff with high turnover and a lot of innings phenomenally while keeping the running game in check.
Wei-Yin Chen has pitched better in his rookie campaign than most expected, and he headlines a group of unheralded signings, including right-hander Miguel Gonzalez from the Mexican Winter League and outfielder Lew Ford out of independent ball. The in-season signing of outfielder Nate McLouth -- who had been released by Pittsburgh -- to a Minor League deal and the acquisition of veteran designated hitter Jim Thome via trade have also paid dividends. The Orioles have used 53 players, with Duquette scouring the market to continually add depth at Triple-A to help offset a rash of injuries.
The fun factor
The Orioles have been playing with "house money," according to Showalter, in defying expectations and winning at every turn despite being predicted by many preseason pundits to finish in last place in the AL East. The result is a light-hearted club whose mood doesn't seem to change, whether things are going well or poorly. The players never let the negativity that comes with any season reach the clubhouse, and that is no small feat.
Success on the road
Through their first 159 games, the Orioles had an AL-leading 45 road wins, which is 15 more than they had last season. The O's have won nine of their first 11 road series against AL East foes and have been able to win close games whether at home or in enemy territory, sporting a remarkable 28-9 record in one-run games.
Since taking the managerial reins in August 2010, Showalter has made it clear that the days of just being .500 -- or worse -- were over. Never was that more apparent than this spring, when the O's manager -- considered a strong candidate for the AL Manager of the Year Award -- challenged his club. Always detail oriented and intense, Showalter has a light-hearted side and has struck the perfect balance for an organization that lacked authority and accountability prior to his arrival.
The Orioles have won their last 16 extra-inning games, extending a franchise record and outscoring opponents, 33-5, in 60 extra-inning frames. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the 16-game streak is the longest in the Majors since the 1949 Indians won 17 straight.
The O's, who are 5-0 in games that have gone 14 or more innings, played back-to-back extra-innings games Sept. 18-19 in Seattle for the first pair of extra-inning games of at least 11 innings since 1991. The bullpen has pitched to a 0.75 ERA in extra innings, with Jones and the offense providing clutch hits that -- time and time again -- lifted the Orioles to a late victory.
In his first full season as closer, Johnson has compiled 50 saves in 53 tries, with the O's rallying to win after two of his three blown saves. A first-time All-Star and leader among the relief corps, Johnson has set a new franchise record for saves in a single season and has made late leads hold up with regularity.
The right-hander, who has more saves than strikeouts, isn't a conventional closer but has been a rock for the Orioles all season. Johnson entered Monday's game having allowed one earned run over a 24-game stretch.
When 20-year-old shortstop prospect Manny Machado made his big league debut on Aug. 9, there were questions about how he would handle the jump from Double-A Bowie to the Majors and adjust to a new position, third base. Both have been answered. Machado has fielded third like a veteran, prompting teammates to joke that there's no way he's 20. The O's defense has improved markedly since his arrival, and he has held his own offensively, earning AL Co-Player of the Week honors during his first week in the Majors.
Machado, who on Aug. 10 became the youngest Orioles player to have a two-homer game, entered Monday hitting .272 with seven homers and 26 RBIs.
Going, going, gone
The Orioles were one of three teams in the Majors to have five or more players with at least 20 home runs: Jones, J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds and Matt Wieters. Add in Thome's power numbers and some pop from Nick Markakis (13), and it's little wonder why Baltimore so often blasted its way to a win. The power show helped the team overcome some of its shortcomings in the starting rotation and set a record for the most home homers hit in Orioles history.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.