If you’re waiting on the Orioles to collapse, you may be waiting awhile
One of the things really good managers do when they take over a new team is to work on the mental approach. That is, they attempt to convince their players they’re good enough to win.
Clint Hurdle said some of the Pirates wouldn’t look him in the eye when he began talking to them about winning the National League Central. He realized that getting guys to believe was going to be more of a challenge than he first thought.
Likewise, Buck Showalter and the Orioles. Charm City’s team hasn’t had a winning team or been to the playoffs since 1997. Around town, there was a sense among some baseball fans that the Orioles might never be good again.
Showalter is brilliant at working on the mental approach of players. Tony La Russa was one of the best ever. Tony’s secret was to get his players to understand that they didn’t have to win 90 games or 100 games. They didn’t need to win 10 in a row or 20 of 25 or anything like that.
They only needed to win that day, and what’s so hard about that. Any team can win one game from any other team. Actually, it’s about focusing on even smaller goals: executing pitches, making plays, doing every little thing right.
La Russa always said he could live with a defeat if his team had played well, had played smart. But when a team made mental mistakes, it drove him crazy. He attacked those kinds of problems immediately, sometimes right in the dugout during a game.
One year, La Russa’s Cardinals were picked to finish way back in the standings. When I saw them in April, they were not a confident team. They were creeping along, trying to win an inning at a time, trying to do the right things, trying to establish themselves.
By the time I saw the Cardinals again a few months later, they were rolling toward a division championship. They’d won enough that there was no doubt. They knew they were good if they took care of the details.
So it is with the Orioles. They’re winning, in part, because they have better players. They’re also winning because Showalter has convinced them to take a real small approach to each game and to believe that little things really are big things.
The Orioles are 20-6 in one-run games. They’ve won 11 extra-inning games in a row. In 36 extra winnings, they’ve outscored the oppositioin 24-5. There was a time a couple of weeks ago when it looked like the Orioles were free-falling from contention. Their starting rotation was a mess, and there wasn’t enough clutch hitting.
They lost 17 of 24 and went from 1 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East to 10 games out. Just when they were being written off, they figured things out, found answers in the rotation and have won 12 of 19. Chris Tillman has been a godsend for the rotation. Showalter has managed the bullpen brilliantly. Adam Jones is having his best season. Winning two of three over the weekend in Tampa was absolutely huge. They’re a half-game behind the Angels in the race for the AL’s second Wild Card berth.
There are six AL teams separated by four games competing for the two spots. It’s easy to look at the Angels and think they’re better than the Orioles. The Tigers probably are better, too. But it would be a mistake to sleep on Baltimore. Showalter has changed more than a team. He has changed a culture.