BALTIMORE — It’s the biggest regular-season series in the history of Oriole Park at Camden Yards as the AL’s two best teams fight for a division title and the No. 1 seed this weekend.
Admittedly, the bar isn’t very high as the Orioles are in the midst of only their 10th winning season since leaving Memorial Stadium in 1991 and are closing in on just their sixth trip to the postseason — that magic number stands at four entering Thursday — since moving downtown 31 years ago. In their only first-place finishes playing at Camden Yards, the Orioles led the American League East wire to wire in 1997 and ran away with the division in 2014 with neither season bringing a particularly critical home series in mid-to-late September. On the way to securing a wild card in 1996 and 2016, Baltimore never played a home series of this magnitude for both teams so late in the regular season.
The series probably coming closest to the importance of this one took place in early September of 2012 when the first-place New York Yankees — leading the surprising Orioles by one game — came to Baltimore for a four-game set that resulted in a split and Nick Markakis having his season ended by a CC Sabathia pitch that broke his thumb. But there were still 22 games to go after that series while the Orioles will have just 13 remaining when the Rays leave town Sunday evening.
We’ll also give a nod to the 1992 Orioles, who trailed first-place Toronto by five games with 13 to play when the Blue Jays visited Camden Yards for three in late September. However, Milwaukee was also ahead of Baltimore in the seven-team AL East at the time, making a division title unlikely even before the Orioles dropped two of three to the eventual World Series champions.
I’ve occasionally bristled over the club’s frequent anniversary celebrations for Camden Yards to try to mask just how little team success has taken place at this jewel of a venue, but second-place Tampa Bay arriving for a critical four-game set in mid-September is the kind of weekend for which Orioles fans have dreamed, especially after the misery of a multiyear rebuild under general manager Mike Elias. Leading by two games entering Thursday’s opener with the Rays, the Orioles have the opportunity to take an overwhelming lead in the AL East with two weeks to play, which would also mean a bye in the first round of next month’s postseason.
Since winning three of four at Tropicana Field to move into first place in late July, the Orioles have gone 30-16. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has gone 29-15 to stay on Baltimore’s heels, the lead never growing beyond four games over the last 7 1/2 weeks. Short of a final-weekend scenario like the Orioles faced against the Brewers on 33rd Street in 1982 or in Toronto to conclude the “Why Not?” 1989 campaign, it doesn’t get bigger than this in the regular season.
“I know it’s going to be a big series and it’s a team we know very well, and it’s going to be exciting for the fans. We’re looking forward to it,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Obviously, we’ve come a long way to play in these types of games in mid-September against a team that’s a really, really good club. I want our guys to enjoy it.”
Yes, the Orioles and their fans should enjoy this, but there’s so much on the line, making for an intense weekend.
A first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the AL postseason sure beats having to play in the best-of-three wild-card series. Even hosting all three possible games at Camden Yards as the top wild card carries the risk of potentially being eliminated after a bad 24 hours, a devastating thought for a club still on pace to win 100 games for the first time since 1980.
Beyond the division implications, this weekend brings invaluable experience for a young team led by Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, especially with projected postseason starters Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, and Dean Kremer scheduled to pitch. The club has already announced a sellout for Friday night when Adam Jones — a major figure in the aforementioned 2012 series against the Yankees — will retire as an Oriole and be honored for his 11-year run in Charm City that included three trips to the playoffs.
The atmosphere should be electric all weekend, a preview of what’s to come in October.
Yes, Baltimore has waited for this for a long time, especially after three seasons of 100-plus losses in a four-year period. Exactly two years ago this Sunday, Hyde’s club lost its 100th game of the 2021 season. The players who remain — Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, and Cedric Mullins among them — can officially punch their playoff ticket this weekend.
The Orioles have been waiting for this too.
“One hundred percent. I think the excitement kind of crept in probably a full month ago,” Mullins said. “We knew we were playing well. We’re continuing to stay focused each day. With that number narrowing down, it’s just a matter of continuing to go day by day. Once we hit it, I think a burst of emotions will come out.”