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O's look to next year after great season

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BALTIMORE (AP) - The Orioles made baseball relevant in Baltimore again, shedding the stigma of 14 consecutive losing seasons with a wildly successful run that vastly exceeded all realistic expectations.

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Baltimore stayed in contention for the AL East crown until the final day, reached the postseason, won its wild-card game and pushed the New York Yankees to the brink in the division series before losing 3-1 on Friday night in the deciding fifth game.

After the sting of elimination fades, the Orioles will savor their 93-69 season and remember the scene at Camden Yards when two straight sellout crowds cheered the home team's first appearance in the playoffs since 1997.

``The feeling, with the crowd screaming and waving the towels, you couldn't hear yourself think,'' first baseman Mark Reynolds said.

Following four successive last-place finishes, Baltimore turned it around in 2012. Unfortunately, the Orioles still weren't good enough to displace New York as top dog in the AL East. Not only did the Yankees win the division, they bounced Baltimore from the playoffs.

But a seismic shift occurred along the way. Buck Showalter's young Orioles gave the aging Yankees - with Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Eric Chavez and Alex Rodriguez - all they could handle.

``It is not goodbye to this group, it is, `See ya later,''' Showalter said. ``They have a very well-deserved rest. They were good teammates and people that our city and organization can be proud of. And we'll see them again.''

Rookies Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez pitched brilliantly in the ALDS. First-year players Ryan Flaherty and Manny Machado hit home runs in Game 3. Another rookie pitcher, Steve Johnson, contributed significantly during the regular season and Baltimore improved its 2011 record by 24 games despite getting little help from young arms Zach Britton and Jake Arrieta.

Dan Duquette, in his first year as executive vice president of baseball operations, did an exceptional job of adding key players along the way. Joe Saunders, Jim Thome, Nate McLouth and Lew Ford all played a part in the successful run, even though none of them were on the 40-man roster when the season began.

For once, the Orioles had depth. It didn't matter that Baltimore lost three leadoff hitters to injury - Brian Roberts, Nolan Reimold and Nick Markakis - because McLouth was there to step in. And when left-handed reliever Troy Patton went on the disabled list with an ankle injury, converted starter Brian Matusz stepped in to fill the void.

Matusz, Machado and All-Star catcher Matt Wieters are among several players to emerge from the Orioles' oft-maligned farm system. That group includes top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, who got his first taste of major league ball in the middle of a pennant race.

``It's something where a lot of these guys in the clubhouse came up together through the system, and we've been able to see each other's games sort of improve and develop,'' Wieters said. ``A lot of us have had to develop at the big league level, and we really picked up our game the last couple years. That's why we are where we are.''

Jim Johnson led the majors with 51 saves and was a big reason why Baltimore went 29-9 in one-run games. Few other Orioles were listed among the league leaders, and it didn't matter because no one had to carry the burden of producing in every game.

``We know we're going to have different guys step up every night and be able to drive in runs,'' Wieters said. ``The big thing is that we just want everybody to sort of play to their ability and not worry about where you're hitting in the lineup or what your stats are.''

Given what happened in the 14 years leading up to this one, there might be reason to believe this season was nothing more than a quirky stroke of luck.

``There are no flukes in baseball. There are no Cinderellas,'' Showalter insisted. ``You play too many games.''

The 2012 Orioles played more games than usual, all the way into the second week of October. They hope to play even longer next year.

``I'm proud of the effort of the whole organization,'' Duquette said. ``We took some great strides forward. We're a first-division outfit.''

AP NEWS
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The Associated Press
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