O’s ‘mazing season

Major League baseball has changed so much since the days when there were eight teams in the American League and eight more in the National League.

Any starting pitcher who was removed before the eighth inning and 145 pitches could be ostracized for his lack of work ethic. Relief pitchers reported to the mound for the Philadelphia Athletics or St. Louis Browns only if a starting pitcher had been injured while batting or when throwing his 160th pitch.

Now days, middle relief pitchers win pennants for teams. Or in the case of the resurgent Baltimore Orioles, they get a team into the expanded playoffs.

The Orioles are back in the playoffs after a substantial 15-year layoff. Not since 1997 and manager Davy Johnson have the Baltimores been to the postseason.

And though the Orioles have seen substantial offense or home runs from Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, J. J. Hardy, and Nick Markakis there would be no playoffs without the large cast of middle relievers.

Jim Johnson has 51 saves in 54 opportunities. And he has so many late-inning appearances because of the stellar seasons given the team by the likes of Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop, Troy Patton, Luis Ayala, and of late Brian Matusz, Randy Wolf, Tommy Hunter, and Steve Johnson.

Wolf and Johnson are now injured.

Hitters with low to anemic batting averages like Mark Reynolds, Taylor Teagarden, Endy Chavez, Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, and Lew Ford can be tolerated because so few games have gotten out of hand against the starters or relievers.

Since late May, low-run games have become a trademark of the Orioles. Middle relievers have been reliable . . . and have been able to give Johnson a lead in the ninth inning.

If the Orioles have a lead when entering the seventh inning, they have never lost in any of the 73 games that has happened.

Relief pitchers have given the O’s the chance to go 73-0 in those late-game situations.

There might not be a divisional title. But there will be at least one playoff game. And one in 16 seasons is better than none.

It hasn’t been an injury-free season.

Nolan Reimold and Brian Roberts missed nearly the entire season. Nick Markakis, having a banner year after being elevated by manager Buck Showalter to the leadoff spot in the batting order, has been injured twice and may not return again. Jim Thome missed about two months and Wilson Betemit was out for weeks.

The starting pitchers have numbered 12, and Jason Hammel, Wolf, and Johnson have all been injured at times. Late-season acquisition Joe Saunders has started seven times.

The up-and-down elevator between Baltimore and Class AAA Norfolk has been ridden often by Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman, Matusz, and Steve Johnson.

Home runs have been steadily provided.

Jones and Davis have at least 30. Hardy, Reynolds, Wieters have at least 20.

Showalter decided to give his assortment of useful pitchers the best defense he could find when he stationed Reynolds at first base, Andino at second base, and youngster Manny Machado at third base. Nate McLouth has been a fixture in the outfield, where he, Jones, and Markakis are a very protective defensive group. Wieters has stopped opponents from even trying to steal.

Betemit and Omar Quintanella lost favor because there were more able defensive players available.

This team evolved into an Earl Weaver-type team. Pitching and defense first. And home runs to provide the few necessary runs. Weaver generally had better starting pitching, but Showalter has by far the better middle relief staff.

One game. Or more. The playoffs may be a brief and flickering flame. But in 1997, the Orioles had players like 41-year-old Jesse Orosco, utility man Jeff Reboulet, outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, and designated hitter Harold Baines. And that seems like it was a long time ago.

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