Brian Roberts remembers the bad times.
The veteran infielder has been with the club since 2001 when the Orioles won 63 games. He’s played under five different managers and endured seven seasons of sub-70-win baseball.
Now the Orioles are trying to get into the playoffs for a second consecutive season. With a solo homer in the eighth inning, his 50th, Chris Davis provided the go-ahead run in a 5-3 win over the Blue Jays on Friday.
Watch: Blue Jays 4, Orioles 3
On Saturday, both he and youngster Manny Machado each hit RBI doubles, but it was Colby Rasmus’ two-run homer in the seventh inning that lifted the Blue Jays to a 4-3 victory.
After Saturday’s loss the Orioles are three games behind Tampa Bay for the second wild-card playoff berth. That’s a new scene for Roberts, who only recently got a taste of October baseball. The Orioles had been lurking around the basement along with the Blue Jays in the AL East for 14 of the last 16 seasons.
In 2012 they took a leap forward, making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. They lost to the New York Yankees 3-2 in the first round, eliminating them from the post-season. Regardless, it was progress for a club that’s been years in the making.
“It’s very rewarding,” said the veteran Roberts. “To go through years of losing you build a lot of character, that’s for sure, and it definitely helps you not take these times for granted and enjoy them.”
What’s notable about the O’s is that unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and other big spenders, the O’s haven’t flashed their wallets to acquire talent. Davis, who tied a franchise record for homers and became the third player in baseball history to combine 50 homers and 40 doubles in a season, earns $3.3-million (all currency in U.S.).
Baltimore sits 15th among the 30 major league teams, with a payroll just north of $97-million. Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Adam Jones make more than one-third of the total, a combined $35-million.
But through and through, the O’s waited patiently, and now possess the likes of third baseman Manny Machado, who leads the MLB in doubles and hits, and Davis, who leads the league with 50 home runs and 349 total bases.
Machado was drafted third overall in 2010, while Davis was acquired in 2011 from the Texas Rangers along with Tommy Hunter for pitcher Koji Uehara and cash.
Homegrown players such as outfielder Markakis (drafted in 2003), second baseman Roberts (drafted in 2001), Machado and catcher Matt Wieters (drafted in 2007) highlight players that convert newcomers such as Nate McLouth into believers.
“That’s really all it’s about is putting those two things together,” said McLouth, an outfielder, speaking of talent and chemistry. “The Orioles had some rough years for a while. We were able to turn it around last year and we’re in a pretty decent position this year, too.”
Machado, a future gold-glover, Wieters, a two-time gold-glover and all-star, and McLouth, who’s made one error in just over 1,500 innings as an Oriole are integral parts of Baltimore’s playoff hunt.
They’re making a combined salary of just under $8-million this season.
Before Saturday’s game, Roberts said breeding players through the minor league system is important, but making smart acquisitions with those draft picks is even more meaningful.
“Most teams that win have guys that have been drafted,” he said. “You can go out and fill holes in free agency and trades, but even in trades a lot of times you use your homegrown talent, and we’ve done that as well.”
Roberts was referring specifically to the 2008 deal with the Seattle Mariners that sent out Erik Bedard and returned five players, including Chris Tillman and Adam Jones.
Jones tipped the scale of the trade, winning two gold gloves, making three all-star appearances and finishing sixth in 2012 AL MVP voting.
Tillman has developed into the team’s ace, on pace to pitch 200 innings, while sporting a 16-5 record and a 3.66 ERA coming into Saturday’s game.
In 2011 the Orioles acquired shortstop J.J. Hardy from the Minnesota Twins to add some pop to the middle of their order, and he did just that.
After hitting 81 homers in six years between Minnesota and Milwaukee, he has since hit 77 home runs, earned a gold-glove and made an all-star appearance.
Hardy is making $7.4-million while Tillman makes just over $500,000.
Although Hardy plays shortstop, one of the toughest positions on the diamond, playing in Baltimore comes with high expectations.
In 148 games this season, the Orioles have made 43 errors and own a .992 fielding percentage. The MLB record for fewest errors in a season is 65 by the 2005 Mariners, and should they maintain their pace for the entirety of the season, they will own the best fielding percentage ever, topping the 2007 Colorado Rockies’ mark of .989.
For Roberts, it’s easy to see the difference between past Baltimore teams and the 2013 club.
“I think that chemistry can be overrated sometimes,” said Roberts. “We have a group that enjoys being around each other, plays the game together and I think that’s been important for us. All 30 teams talk about pitching and playing defense, and you can talk about it until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t have guys who can accomplish it then it doesn’t really do you any good, so I think we have a lot of guys who pay a lot of attention to it.”
In Baltimore, baseball’s fun again, and what makes it that way is the familiar faces around the diamond, year in, year out.