The Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Rays are an interesting study of two teams that went in the opposite direction of where they were supposed to go this year. Prior to the season I, along with many other people, predicted that the O's would take a step forward in 2011, with Tampa taking a step back. In the off season Tampa lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and Rafael Soriano to free agency (with Pena and Soriano relocating within the division), and the Orioles picked up the likes of Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds. That, combined with a presumably healthy Brian Roberts made many people feel that the O's would in fact leapfrog the Tampa Rays in the standings this year. Yet going into tonight's game, the O's are twenty games behind the Rays in the standings. What gives?
You can look at the statistics yourself and deduce that the Rays have gotten far superior starting pitching and clutch hitting this year as opposed to the Orioles. However I suppose I'm prepared to say that this issue goes a bit deeper than that. The Orioles have talented enough players to have more than 54 wins at this stage of the year. Aside from perhaps the pitching, Tampa's team isn't that much more talented than the Orioles'. However what they do have is spirit. I've never been big on baseball as a "rah-rah" type of sport. Last week in describing the great Oriole teams of which he was a part, Rick Dempsey said on MASN's O's Xtra postgame show that they'd come up against teams that looked "so miserable" in the other dugout. Somewhere along the way, the Orioles appear to have turned into one of those teams. Having said that, I wouldn't read too much into my comments there; this is not to say that guys are at each other's throats in the clubhouse, or that there's no team chemistry on the Orioles. All indications are that the guys get along with each other fine...
...however there is a certainly joylessness that surrounds this team. Some people would argue that it's difficult to show "joy" when you're constantly getting beaten down. However when was the last time you saw an Oriole do anything more than high-five a teammate after a good play? Aside from the almost obligatory pie in the face and mob scene at home plate after a walk-off win, there's not much emotion in the Oriole clubhouse. Tampa on the other hand is one of these teams that almost wants to invite you to join in their fun. (Keep in mind though that the line between being happy you won or did something good on the field and showing up your oppponent is a tough one to walk.) As an example, in tonight's game Tampa right fielder Brandon Guyer made a pretty nice catch on a Vlad Guerrero liner that otherwise would have been a double. Starting pitcher David Price almost looked like he was going to jump out of his shoes he was so excited. Consequently, Robert Andino started pretty nice double play with J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds. Oriole starter Zach Britton seemed to just sort of point in the direction of first base so as to say nice play.
So does this make a difference? Is it really that easy? Who really knows; however speaking for myself I've always been big on respect for the game and the opponent. So I very much respect the Orioles' approach in that they don't show their hands which ensures that they won't show up the opponent in any way. But does that in effect have you showing up yourself because you don't play with the moxie of one that's loose? This is probably a question moreso for sports psychologists than for a baseball columnist. Keep in mind that it's also possible that Tampa manager Joe Maddon just has a magic touch.