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Joe Henderson Columns

Rays beware, Orioles seem ready to shake off years of mediocrity

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 06:28 PM
SARASOTA -

There really was a time when teams wanted to be like the Baltimore Orioles. It's in all the history books. They were consistently good and fans flocked to the ballpark, turning Baltimore into one of the great baseball cities in the country.

Seems like a long time ago.

"Yeah, back in the '90s," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said here Tuesday. "We're trying to get it back."

Take that last sentence as something more than the usual Grapefruit bravado we find throughout Florida this time of year. Rays fans focused on the evil empires in New York and Boston would be wise to be wary of this team. I'd say a sleeping giant is on the verge of awakening, except I already think the alarm has sounded.

"No, no ... we're just lying in the weeds," Manager Buck Showalter said.

No one is forecasting a circa Rays 2008 worst-to-first scenario for the Birds, but a lot of things are cooking here. This doesn't look like the cuddly Woerioles of 13 consecutive losing seasons, including at least 91 losses in eight of the last 10 years.

It began to turn around when Showalter took over last Aug. 3 - the third of three managers Baltimore went through in 2010. The Orioles were 32-73 on that day, and it wasn't like Showalter inspired them with some big rah-rah rant or something. In fact, Jones said, his first meeting with the team lasted about two minutes.

"It wasn't even a speech. He just said, 'I'm here, it's not going to be nothin' different, now go out and play the game,'" Jones said.

Whatever, it worked. As if on cue, the Orioles won seven of Showalter's first eight games and finished the season on a 34-23 run, playing a significant number of games against teams that were fighting for post-season spots.

"We got healthy when I got here," Showalter said. "I just got out of the way and they kind of took it from there. I think our guys got tired of getting beat up a little bit. It wasn't anything I had to do with, I can tell you that."

Now they've added Vlad Guerrero and Derrick Lee to lineup that wasn't productive last year, and they've already got the makings of a competitive pitching staff.

Lefty Brian Matusz, a former first-round pick by Baltimore, has a chance to be really good. He was 7-1 with a 2.17 ERA after Showalter took over and the O's went 10-1 in his starts.

Baltimore actually expected to be competitive last season but the combination of a slow start and injuries to key guys like Brian Roberts ruined things before they really got started. They were 2-16 out of the chute and wound up 19 games behind fourth-place Toronto in the division.

But there was a lot of talent on this club, testament to the patient building plan put in place by general manager Andy MacPhail, and now there is more. There is also a stunning $31 million makeover at their spring home Ed Smith Stadium, which was unveiled Tuesday in a game a game against the Rays won by the Orioles 12-6.

Indeed, things are looking up for this team that has been down so long. You can even argue the Orioles represent the x-factor in this division of giants. Overlook them at your peril.

"Absolutely. They've upgraded their team in a lot of ways and if that pitching continues (to improve) they're going to be tough," Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. "They need Roberts to stay healthy, I think. He's a big catalyst for them. If he's well and their pitching stays solid, they're going to be a lot better than people know."

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