- Associated Press - Monday, October 4, 2010

BALTIMORE | Optimism. Confidence. Hope.

That’s not how you usually describe a baseball team like the Balimore Orioles, who went through three managers and completed a 13th consecutive losing season by dropping 96 games and finishing last in their division.

Yet the resurgence they experienced under Buck Showalter has provided the franchise and its fans reason to believe there will be significant improvement in 2011.

After Showalter made his debut on Aug. 3, the Orioles went 34-23 — including 14-13 against the AL East. The pitching was better, the offense jelled and the mental errors that plagued the team over the first four months became almost nonexistent.

“It shows you what we have and what we’re capable of doing,” right fielder Nick Markakis said. “We’ve got a great group of guys and we have great talent. It’s just a matter of putting it together. When we put it together, we can play with anybody.”

Dave Trembley couldn’t get the best out of the Orioles, nor could his interim replacement, Juan Samuel. Neither of those two, however, had the credentials of Showalter, whose experience with the New York Yankees, Arizona and Texas made an immediate and lasting impression.

“I think we got that kick in the pants. It’s a little more serious than what you think,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “You produce, you play. You don’t, you sit. Or you get sent down. And that’s how it’s been around here the last two months.”

As a result, the shroud of despair that once filled the clubhouse disappeared.

“Our young players, I think they’ve got something here these last two months that nobody could’ve anticipated,” said Andy MacPhail, president of baseball operations. “That’s some confidence that they can play at this level and compete here. They’ve done it for too long over too tough a part of the schedule to think that it’s just a fluke.”

That, unfortunately, does not necessarily equate to success next year.

“The slate gets wiped clean when we start next April, good and bad. There’s nothing for sure either way,” Showalter said. “I don’t think next April other teams are going to care how we did in August and September the year before. But we’re equipped to make some good decisions this offseason as we go forward.”

The gaps in the roster are similar to those of a year ago. Baltimore needs a veteran pitcher to fill out a rotation filled with young arms. A power hitter in the middle of the lineup, preferably a right-hander corner infielder, is a must. Depth is also an issue, because the Orioles struggled this season when forced to play without leadoff hitter Brian Roberts and outfielder Felix Pie, both of whom were sidelined for months with back injuries.

Last offseason, MacPhail added starter Kevin Millwood, first baseman Garrett Atkins, third baseman Miguel Tejada and closer Mike Gonzalez. Millwood went 4-16, Atkins was released in June, Tejada was traded in July and Gonzalez struggled through a shoulder injury that landed him on the disabled list for three months.

“The most distressing thing about our first four months is we had some injuries and the guys we brought in here didn’t have the impact we hoped they were going to have,” MacPhail acknowledged. “Those things are survivable. You can try again next year.”

MacPhail’s goal will be to build upon the positive vibe — and winning ways — that occurred under Showalter.

“We’re starting now, finally, to demonstrate over a sustained period of time some success, some hope, and you always want to support that,” MacPhail said. “You always want to do what you can to keep the momentum going forward. That’s where it will be this year: trying to address those areas we think are needs that we don’t think we have internal options for.”

It will be a busy offseason for MacPhail and Showalter, who is expected to shuffle his coaching staff by the end of the October.

For the players, the sentiment in the clubhouse was decidedly upbeat Sunday as they bid farewell until February.

“It’s a great feeling going into the offseason on a winning note as far as looking at the future and what we have to build on,” designated hitter Luke Scott said. “What we have accomplished in the face of such adversity and how we’ve turned things around for us as individuals and as a group, it makes the offseason, I’m sure, a lot easier and more exciting.”

Right-hander Jeremy Guthrie had an outstanding second half to finish with a team-high 11 wins and a solid 3.83 ERA. Like the Orioles, he can’t dismiss the first four months of the season but would prefer to focus on what happened after Showalter arrived.

“Neither last season nor this season did we win enough games to really go home and hang our hats high and feel good about ourselves,” Guthrie said. “But we played really good baseball down the stretch, and if that’s what we are going to play next year, then good things are ahead for us.”


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