Zach Wilt: The lucky Orioles a year later

A season ago, baseball pundits cited smoke and mirrors and luck as the reasons the Orioles were competing atop the American League East and in the hunt for their first spot in the postseason since 1997. These same experts reported that the O's would fall back to earth and that their record was unsustainable due to their historic success in extra innings and games decided by one run.

With nearly the same roster and in an even more improved AL East, the Orioles have continued their winning ways in 2013. This time, there's no one telling them they will regress back to the mean.

On June 25, 2012, the Orioles were 41-31, three games back of the first-place Yankees in the AL East, with a plus-4 run differential. Today, they are 42-35, 2 1/2 games back of the Red Sox, with a plus-11 run differential. All five teams in the AL East have records above .500, just as they did exactly a season ago. The last-place Toronto Blue Jays, 5 1/2 games out of the lead, would be in second place with their 38-37 record if they played in the National League East and third in the AL Central or AL West.

It was last September that ESPN's Keith Law boldly proclaimed, "there's literally nothing that the Orioles can do to convince me that they are a good team," on his daily podcast. The O's would go on to win 93 regular season games and record three postseason victories, the same total as the New York Yankees and one more than the Washington Nationals. Still, numerous baseball experts predicted the Orioles would return to the cellar of baseball's toughest division, while their Interstate 95 neighbors in D.C. (currently 37-38) would go on to win the World Series.

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections predicted the Orioles would finish 2013 in last place in the division with a 74-88 record and minus-71 run differential. Of course, preseason projections are fickle. FanGraphs.com's ZiPS projections predicted that Chris Davis' power numbers would go down as the Orioles' full-time first baseman. Davis leads baseball with 27 home runs; ZiPS projected he would finish 2013 with 25.

Not every baseball writer or publication thought the Orioles would regress in 2013. ESPN's Buster Olney predicted the Orioles would win the crowded AL East and cited their strong lineup as part of the reason for their success. With breakout seasons from the aforementioned Davis and young star Manny Machado, the Orioles have managed to remain in the thick of things in the division race.

Perhaps the most often overlooked part of their success has been the clubhouse leadership that starts with Buck Showalter and trickles down to the Orioles' face of the franchise, Adam Jones. It's unquantifiable, but is one of the most important parts in building a winning franchise. The All-Star Gold Glover that stands out in center field in Baltimore told CBS Sports' Jim Rome about a message he shares with every player the Orioles call up from the minor leagues. "Welcome to the majors, (it's) awesome, congrats - all of that," Jones says. "I say, 'Now it's for real.' You know what I mean? Everything we do is for real. This is where it counts."

A year later, the Orioles are as real as Jones' message. No one questions how many runs they've scored or their wins in extra frames. They are one of the best-hitting teams in baseball, led by one of the game's best managers and built around a young nucleus hungry to compete against some of the game's toughest opponents.

It's funny how time can make us forget about how they were viewed as that pesky team that was sure to fall apart just a season ago.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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