For the first time since 1997, the Baltimore Orioles are coming off a year that calls for an encore.
After a run of 14 straight losing seasons, the Orioles went 93-69 in 2012 and beat the then-defending AL champion Texas Rangers in the wild-card game. Baltimore then took the New York Yankees to the maximum five games before falling in the division series.
Now it's time for the Orioles to prove their sensational bounce-back season wasn't just an aberration, but rather the start of something big in a city that has renewed its love for the long downtrodden franchise.
"You always knew this was a sports town, you always knew this was an Orioles town," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "That playoff atmosphere blew my wildest expectations out of the water as to what this city was like when this team wins."
So while the Baltimore Ravens were winning the Super Bowl, the Orioles' most significant moves during the offseason were to provide extensions for manager Buck Showalter and vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. Both are signed through 2018.
Duquette didn't delve deep into the free agent market over the winter, but Baltimore didn't lose much, either. So, with a few exceptions, this is the same squad that finished a surprising second place in the unforgiving AL East.
"Why fix it if it ain't broke?" right fielder Nick Markakis said. "We've got a young team, a lot of good young players, guys coming up. I can understand where Dan and Buck were coming from. We have a good lineup."
Markakis played in only 104 games last season because of injuries, one of several Orioles to miss significant playing time. Roberts (concussion, hip) was used in 16 games, outfielder Nolan Reimold (neck) was sidelined after April 30 and right-hander Jason Hammel — the ace of the starting rotation — pitched in only two regular-season games after July 13 because of a knee injury.
Fortunately, the Orioles had the depth to cover for their injuries, and they're confident they can do the same if necessary in 2013.
"At no time in our clubhouse did somebody go, 'We lost Nick. We lost Nolan. We lost Hammel. We lost Roberts.' I can go right down the line," Showalter said. "It gave somebody else a chance to shine."
Somebody such as rookie third baseman Manny Machado, who expects to build upon a solid 52-game debut over the final two months.
Another late-comer who shined was Nate McLouth, who was plucked from baseball's scrap heap and took over the leadoff spot held previously by Reimold, Markakis and Roberts. McLouth played so well (.342 on-base percentage, 12 stolen bases in 55 games) that the Orioles' made re-signing the free agent outfielder one of their main offseason priorities.
McLouth stayed in Baltimore because he enjoys playing for Showalter and with a team that appears to have a bright future.
"Expectations are obviously raised now, and that's a good thing," McLouth said. "I know the fans are going to have a lot of excitement. We're looking forward to duplicating what we did last year and then moving beyond that."
That's right. The Orioles won't be satisfied with merely replicating their success of last season. Now that they know what it's like to taste champagne during the postseason, they're striving to play deep into October.
"Our guys were very proud of the improvement last year, but they were not proud to get beat in Game 5," Showalter said. "I've got a good feeling. The core of people we have are very easy to trust.
"I feel like they're willing to do what it takes to get there."
No matter how many players it takes.
"We have a lot of depth, not just at the major league roster," center fielder Adam Jones said. "Last year, we used 52 guys. Now, we got guys in Triple-A that have major league experience. It definitely helps out. That helps the psyche of this team."