The Orioles’ season has been special, which is why the last four days have been so painful

ARLINGTON, Texas – The best bands to be around are the ones that surprise you, the groups that captivate the city and work their way into the hearts of even the most reluctant fans.

It’s June and you’re glad it’s still fun to watch. It’s July and you’re braving the humidity just to get a closer look at Homer Hose and the Splash Zone, where the playground comes alive again. It’s August and they’re on summer vacation with you, on the radio or TV saying, “Let’s check the Orioles score, real quick.” It’s September, a time when Baltimore has long since turned to football, and those words are on every TV in the bar. As the regular season winds down, almost everywhere manager Brandon Hyde goes, people stop and thank him for this season, one in which his team wins the American League East title and its first 100-win season in more than 40 years.

The 2023 Orioles brought baseball back to Baltimore, where local businesses hung Orioles signs in their windows and fans screamed until the stadium shook and the players — many in their first year — looked at each other with wide eyes and thought, Is this always the case in the major leagues?

This group was special. That’s what made this season so great. This is what made the past four days so painful. No one in the visiting clubhouse at Globe Life Field wanted to stop playing baseball, which was the end result after a 7-1 loss to the Texas Rangers in the division series on Tuesday night.

“No matter which way you lose, it hurts,” said pitcher Kyle Gibson, a pending free agent who was one of the few Orioles with previous playoff experience. “This is a really good group of players and I think that makes it worse as well, because we knew we had something special. You want to try to take advantage of that whenever you can.”

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It was less than two weeks ago when Hyde stood up, tears streaming down his eyes, holding a bottle of champagne like a proud father and declaring that no one outside the club had given this group a chance. On the backs of some soon-to-be stars, a team that had the second-fewest hits in baseball and an astonishing 30-16 record in one-run games, the Orioles emerged as the best team in the AL. Looks like they’re headed for a road trip. Instead, they led the Division Series by one run, and were left watching from the visitor’s dugout as the Rangers celebrated.

“We’ll definitely take this into the offseason and use it as fuel to make a World Series push,” rookie Gunnar Henderson said.

Choose your version, they were young and inexperienced. The starting pitching staff was tired, and the offense lost two-thirds of the series. But there’s no question that the Orioles were outgunned in every aspect of the game, and every button that Rangers manager Bruce Bochy pushed — hitting Mitch Garver at third in Game 2, holding reliever Dane Dunning to the gut in Game 1 — was thrown off. The high-flying Orioles, which had not been swept in the regular season since May, exited the playoffs with a whimper.

“There’s no other way to say it: They kicked our ass,” outfielder Austin Hayes said of the Rangers, who opened the playoffs by winning five straight games. “It sucks. We couldn’t really get anything done, and we couldn’t get any momentum on our part to get things going. It hurts. It really hurts.”

Austin Hayes hits a home run in the fourth inning. (Jerome Miron/USA Today)

Hayes sat in his chair, a Corona device in his hand, next to Cedric Mullins and Adley Rutschman. Anthony Santander did the same. A large majority of the Orioles, when the club was open to the media, sat in front of their lockers feeling a mixture of emotions: shock, sadness, disbelief. More than once a player choked during an interview. Hugs were exchanged, the last night of a special season still treasured. They said it over and over again: This was the most fun any of them had ever had in baseball.

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“This feels bad, but on the bright side, this is our first taste of the postseason,” Dean Kramer, who gave up six earned runs over 1 2/3 innings, said Tuesday. “Almost everyone at this club is back, so there are a lot of good years to look forward to.”

Kramer echoed the sentiments of all his teammates: 2023 has been a resounding success, even if it hurt Tuesday. Even if they want more. Even if, as Hyde said in his team talk after the match, experiencing ups and downs like this is part of it.

Everyone in this club believes the Orioles will come back. And if they’re lucky, it won’t end this way again.

“It hurts, and it’s okay to be hurt. It’s okay to have that kind of fuel in the offseason,” Hyde said. “It’s going to take some time for us to get over this a little bit. But I think our guys will come hunting hungry in spring training. Coming back guys, especially young guys, know what this looks like, they know what it tastes like, and it sucks. If they soak it a little, they will be better for it in the future.

The rotation remains the biggest concern going forward, as the Orioles start three pitchers who have made zero playoff starts with only Kyle Bradish coming close to matching his Rangers counterpart. In the Series, the Orioles’ starters went eight innings and allowed 12 earned runs on 20 hits and six walks (14.63 ERA). If you take out Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez and Kremer combined to strike out just 10 in Games 2 and 3, to the tune of a 29.70 ERA. Although the offense was lackluster during the Division Series, it consistently worked around significant deficits in the final two games of the series.

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Gibson, who signed a one-year contract to be the veteran in the rotation, is a pending free agent; As are Adam Frazier, Jorge Lopez, Aaron Hicks, and trade deadline acquisitions Jack Flaherty and Shintaro Fujinami. Mostly, though, this group will return.

Although it will never be 2023 again, the Orioles believe there are better days ahead.

“It’s like we’re taking these baby steps, it kind of sucks that it’s going that way,” Mullins admitted, hoping, like many of his teammates, to be the last team standing. “Last year, we missed the playoffs. This year we got there, and we didn’t have many chances. Next year there will be something better.”

These are the chapters you don’t want to end. The Orioles will spend one more night together before returning to Baltimore on Wednesday and going their separate ways. Spring training is just four months away. There is unfinished business in Baltimore, a rejuvenated fan base and a team eager to rewrite that ending.

“This team is moving forward, heading up,” Hyde said. “It will be a really good club.”

(Top photo by Gunnar Henderson: Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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