BALTIMORE -- To go 29-9 in one-run games and win 16 consecutive extra-inning contests, a lot has to go right, and contributions are required from just about everyone on the roster. But one group in particular is essential if a team is going to put together that kind of consistency with almost no margin for error: the bullpen.
We're three weeks into the new season, but shades of 2012 are returning -- in a good way -- that remind the Baltimore Orioles why their magical run last year probably wasn't an anomaly. The Orioles finished their series with the Blue Jays on Wednesday with a 12-9 record, behind the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East standings.
Coming off a 93-win season and a Wild Card berth that few predicted in the early going, Buck Showalter's crew appears to be continuing to take step after methodical step to ensure these Orioles lose the "fluke" label and develop into a team considered simply talented.
So far, they're picking up where they left off. Their win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday marked their franchise-record 100th consecutive regular-season game that they've won when leading after seven innings. This dates back to August 2011, and, obviously, could not have been carried out without the contributions from the group overlooked the most by fans but invaluable in the eyes of the manager: the relief corps.
"These guys have multiple abilities," Showalter said. "There are very few guys down there where I say, 'He's only going to be able to face this guy.'"
Clearly, a lot went right for the 2012 Orioles. Showalter's club was honored before the game by MLB.com with two GIBBYs (Greatness in Baseball Yearly Awards), which have been handed out to A-list players and teams for 11 years. They honor the greatest players, moments, managers and feats of a season. The panel of voters is expansive, involving media, front-office personnel, Major League alumni, fans who log on to MLB.com and experts from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
Showalter was named 2012 Manager of the Year by GIBBY voters, and the Orioles received the award for the Best Storyline (affectionately referred to in these parts as "Buckle Up" and also "Bucking the Trend"). Showalter and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette accepted the awards on behalf of the team during an on-field ceremony minutes before first pitch on Wednesday.
Showalter was mindful to point out that the awards were earned by the entire team, but still, much of the pregame talk surrounded how vital the relievers were to the Orioles' formula working last year and why they're off to a fast start in '13.
Orioles relievers compiled a 3.00 ERA and 32 wins in 2012. The back end was close to air tight then and continues to be today: in 23 appearances -- including the postseason -- dating back to Sept. 18 of last year, right-handed setup man Darren O'Day is 2-0 with a 0.34 ERA, allowing one earned run over 23 2/3 innings. Closer Jim Johnson, who was charged with the extra-inning loss Wednesday, has converted a career-best 19 consecutive saves dating back to July 30.
In Johnson's last nine appearances, opponents have logged five singles in 30 at-bats for a .167 average. Since September 2011, he has converted 66 of 69 save opportunities.
Breaking it down that way, it's not hard to figure out how, or why, the Orioles haven't had a true late-game meltdown in 100 chances.
That said, part of the strategy, according to Showalter, is to simply let things play out as they may.
"You don't always follow a script," Showalter said. "There's a mentality. It's one of the things you can't evaluate. You've got all these forms of evaluation with numbers and stats and drafts and pie charts and all that other stuff. How do evaluate mentality? How do you evaluate teammates? How do you evaluate what mentality does to the team you're playing? How do you evaluate confidence?"
The Orioles may not need a spreadsheet to figure it out, but clearly, when they need it, it's not far out of reach.