ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – This trip began with the Orioles' plane catching on fire.
Then it really got bad.
Baltimore arrived in Florida after an emergency landing Sunday with a shot at winning the AL East. But then the O's got kneecapped by the woeful Boston Red Sox, kicked in the gut by the New York Yankees' Raul Ibanez, and then suffocated by the Tampa Bay Rays' Jeremy Hellickson. Instead of going home to the cheers of Camden Yards, they must stay on the road for a one-game showdown with the Texas Rangers on Friday.
But there is a bright side, and it comes from perhaps the most beloved Bird of all.
"I'd rather see Texas," Hall of Famer Jim Palmer told Yahoo! Sports after the Orioles' 4-1 loss to the Rays in the regular-season finale. "Nothing against Oakland, but [Baltimore] is a fly-ball hitting team, and the Coliseum is where home run balls go to die."
Good point by the Orioles' pitching legend. And he had another one.
"We could be playing Saturday," Palmer said. "Against the Yankees."
If there's any justice for this team at the end of an incredible journey Palmer summed up as "unexpected," Baltimore will get a real shot against New York. After a year spent scrapping to hang with the higher-paid, higher-profile team from the Bronx, the O's deserve a crack at the Bombers. And although the aftermath of Game 162 brought "a little bit of disappointment," in the words of slugger Chris Davis, the vibe in the locker room was positive. The team has dealt with far worse circumstances than losing two out of three to the Rays and having a ticket punched to Arlington for a playoff game.
"We know it'll be hard," Davis said. Asked if the team is excited, Davis quipped, "We're gonna hang our heads and mope into Texas.
"Of course we're excited. We're in the playoffs for the first time in 15 years."
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Well said. Yes, the new playoff format means the O's could lose to the Rangers on Friday and not get a single home playoff game after all this time out of the postseason. But Baltimore has been on the brink all year. It started on the brink. So what's the difference? And as Palmer points out, "They are playing as well as they've played all year. They play really hard. And Buck [Showalter] is totally prepared."
Well, maybe not totally prepared, as Showalter still hasn't decided who will pitch Friday. But there really isn't much reason for despair. Sure, anything can happen in one game, but it's the Rangers who are reeling after their historic collapse at the hands of the A's. It's the Rangers who came into this season with World Series expectations, and now must fight off the Orioles (of all teams) to stay alive. And it's the Rangers who are trusting their season to Yu Darvish, who has been terrific all season (16-9 with 221 strikeouts) but has just as little MLB playoff experience as the O's do. The everything-to-gain-and-nothing-to-lose label certainly fits better on Baltimore than the team from Texas – especially considering the Rangers are at home.
So it isn't ideal for the Orioles, but it is fitting: the unexpected journey takes an unexpected turn. But Friday will be the last stop on this part of the itinerary. Then home to a place that has been transformed in one cherished summer by one charmed team. "It's been great," Palmer said, describing the vibe of the city. Then he cracked another smile.
"It's been a football town," Palmer said, "for far too long."
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