BALTIMORE — The Rays are used to the path to the playoffs going through New York. (And previously proud Boston.)
But Baltimore, where they open a pivotal three-game series tonight one game behind the upstart Orioles for second place in the American League East and the second wild-card spot?
"It doesn't surprise me," said Luke Scott, the Ray who should know best as he was in Baltimore for the last four of 14 consecutive losing seasons. "No one expected them to be maybe where they are, but it's definitely not a surprise."
The Orioles progression may be accelerated, but it was also planned.
They finished last season strong, going 22-16, including that oh-by-the-way win over the Red Sox that made the rest of Game 162 possible for the Rays. Under new general manager Dan Duquette, they made some smaller offseason additions to their underrated core led by centerfielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and now-injured rightfielder Nick Markakis that made a big difference, and they continued to make moves throughout the season, adjusting their pitching staff seemingly week by week. And, under the driving force of manager Buck Showalter, they started, going back to Sarasota in February, believing in themselves.
"I'm just seeing a different energy out of their group," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They're showing up believing they can win, where before maybe they were just showing up. Their culture flipped."
Which actually sounds familiar.
Teams having unexpected success are often compared to those that came before them, as if there is a pedigree or a diagram.
And, in this case, there just might be.
"Believe it or not, and I know it sounds cliche, but it does remind me of the '08 Rays," said Jason Hammel, the Oriole who should know best as he was a pitcher on that Tampa Bay team. "You come into spring training and everybody in the group is confident and outside are all the doubters and all that.
"We brought in some pretty integral pieces, some veteran leadership and obviously have Buck running the ship. It's just that everybody's confident. We're picking each other up. Everybody's adding something, it's not just one or two guys carrying us. It's very reminiscent of '08. And a lot of people have asked me about that."
The 78 in the win column is significant enough, their most since '04, and one more will match their best since 1998 (the Rays' first season).
But there are other numbers that are really interesting, and somewhat telling.
In one-run games, the Orioles are 25-7, which, at .781, would be the best such winning percentage in major-league history. (The Rays are 20-24).
And in extra innings, the O's are 12-2. (The Rays are 5-6.)
How, defying both logic and odds, are they doing that?
The answer, Duquette said, is as much what the relievers are doing on the mound as the hitters at the plate. "What happens," he said, "is our bullpen holds them down and we've been able to hit a home run in the close games."
Other numbers are mystifying.
Typically, teams with winning records score more runs than they allow. But the Orioles, after some significant improvement, are minus-29, the only team in the majors above .500 with a negative run differential. (The Rays are plus-85.)
As a result, the statistical analyses don't like them, putting their "projected" record under .500. Neither do the computer projections: Even though the O's are a game ahead of the Rays, coolstandings.com gives the O's a 39.3 percent chance to make the playoffs and the Rays 60.8.
In April and May and June and even July, the Orioles seemed like one of those nice little teams — say, the Pirates — that hangs around and gets everyone excited then goes away and finishes well out of the race like it is supposed to.
And then the Orioles went out and posted the majors' best August at 18-9. So much for going "poof."
So now it's September, and there are three weeks to play, and they're not only in the race, as of this morning they're in the playoffs.
"They're not going anywhere," Maddon said. "People that expect them to go away, they're totally wrong. They ain't going anywhere."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]