The Phillies have been eliminated from playoff contention and are fighting to finish the season with a winning record. As the season winds down and I am realizing that I will have a lot more time on my hands than I have the last five years, one question remains: Who will I root for this postseason? To me, the choice is easy: Jim Thome and the Baltimore Orioles.
When the Phillies signed Thome this offseason the Phillies fanbase was immediately excited. When the Baltimore Orioles hired former Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette to fill the same role for them, despite having not run a team since 2002, fans let out a skeptical laugh. But despite the Phillies appearing playoff-bound and the Orioles being cellar-bound, the two swapped fortunes and one fan favorite along the way.
Duquette made no sexy moves this offseason. Some of Duquette's best moves were addition by subtraction and letting talented but underperforming players play. The big free agent acquisition was utility infielder Wilson Betemit. Duquette was criticized for trading Jeremy Guthrie to the Colorado Rockies for Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom. This Baltimore Sun article refers to the trade as a "folly"
Some just needed a chance. Chris Davis was acquired in a trade from the Texas Rangers approaching the trade deadline in 2011 as the Orioles sent Koji Uehara. With a chance to play and blossom, Davis has hit 30 home runs for the Orioles. After 16 innings as a DH in a May 8th game at Boston's Fenway Park against the Red Sox, David pitched two innings. He earned the win on a night that he went 0-8.
The Orioles added veteran arm Luis Ayala prior to the season along with Matt Lindstrom in the Guthrie trade, but the major relief acquisition came from inside the organization. Jim Johnson had been a full-time member of the Orioles bullpen since 2008. Despite grabbing some saves during his first four years as a full-time reliever, 2012 was Johnson's first season as a closer. And boy, has he responded. Going into the last three games of the season, Johnson is 2-1with a 2.57 ERA and has reached the 50 (yes - FIFTY) save mark.
During the season, Duquette grabbed Phillies first baseman (okay, so playing first base did not work) Jim Thome while the calendar had barely turned to June. At the time it appeared that the Orioles only had a slight chance at a playoff berth. I must admit, I even felt badly for Thome because I felt he deserved a better chance at a World Series. As we sit here now with three games to play, the Orioles have clinched a postseason berth and sit tied with the New York Yankees for the American League East title with three games to play.
Aside from Thome, the only major "deadline" acquisition was the callup of 20 year-old infield prospect Manny Machado. Machado has played solid defense for the Orioles at third base and is hitting .278. He helps fill out an infield that includes veteran shorstop J.J. Hardy and first baseman Mark Reynolds. Adam Jones and Matt Wieters are emerging as top players at their positions in the major leagues. Machado compliments them very nicely.
The Orioles also benefitted by standing pat on trades despite pressure to make some moves. When everyone felt that the Orioles would take on Joe Blanton from the Phillies, Duquette resisted and patiently grabbed Joe Saunders instead.
When everything seemed stacked againt the Orioles, they keep on winning. They work hard, never give up, and overcome what may be lesser or less developed talent than some teams have, all on a meager payroll. When Nick Markakis broke his hand at the beginning of September, the all but forgotten Nate McLouth stepped up and filled in admirably.
The Phillies may be out of the playoffs, but I can get excited for Jim Thome and about this young, exciting team. Thome went 2 for 4 Sunday with 2 RBI after going 3 for 4 on Friday night. Thome seems to be getting healthy and hot at the perfect time.
The Orioles have three more games left against the formidible Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees face formidible foe the Boston Red Sox, who surely are extra motivated to help knock the Yankees out of a division crown. The American League East is up for grabs, and the Orioles very well could be division champions.
None of ESPN's 50 experts predicted the Orioles would make the playoffs. They are officially playoff-bound and the American League East pennant could be theirs. They sound like just the type of team I would enjoy rooting for this postseason. Jim Thome will be battling to earn his first World Series ring. I would love to see him get it.