Davey Johnson, then manager of the Orioles, greets Eddie Murray after the… (Ted Mathias/AFP via Getty…)
On July 28, 1996, the Baltimore Orioles — who boasted a roster with three future Hall of Famers, two future 200-game winners and three all-stars that season — had an underwhelming record of 51-52 after a sixth loss in seven games. They trailed the American League East-leading New York Yankees by 12 games and the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox by five games for the wild-card berth with 59 games left. Their general manager contemplated trading two key pieces for prospects.
But over the final two months, the Orioles played at a torrid pace of 37-22. They finished the regular season 14 games over .500 and claimed the wild-card spot by 21/2 games. Baltimore’s manager, in his first season with the team, was Davey Johnson.
A 162-game regular season ebbs and flows. Front-running teams have endured epic collapses and trailing squads have mounted dramatic comebacks. The ’96 Orioles are an example of a Johnson-led team that changed its fortunes in weeks, reaching the playoffs after at one point the White Sox had a 93.7 percent chance of claiming the berth.
The 2013 Washington Nationals, also under Johnson’s stewardship, face an even more dire deficit. Through Saturday’s games, they trailed the Atlanta Braves by 111/2 games in the National League East and were 61/2 games out of the second wild-card spot with 52 games left. Their predicament is troubling but not yet entirely hopeless.
Even though the Orioles were under .500 late in the 1996 season, “the entire team felt like we could make the playoffs,” said Tony Tarasco, a right fielder on that team who is now a first base coach for the Nationals. “You see some of the similar frustrations you see here. The whole lineup was a bit more experienced than our lineup is here. But knowing that we had a world of talent. We had a good pitching staff, the same as we have here. Just a lot of bad breaks. Things just felt a little bit snakebit. Frustrated at times in the locker room. The guys, because of their experience, just kept playing.”
That Orioles team was talented and had high expectations, but not like the “World Series or bust” mantra of this season’s Nationals. Baltimore’s pitching staff included David Wells, Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Randy Myers, Jesse Orosco, Alan Mills and Arthur Rhodes — yet underperformed. The staff posted a collective 5.14 ERA.
“Sometimes you think you got things figured and you can’t put your finger on it,” said Pat Gillick, Baltimore’s general manager in 1996. “Some teams play below expectations and sometimes they play above.”
The offense carried the team. Seven hitters smashed at least 20 home runs led by Brady Anderson’s 50 and Rafael Palmeiro’s 39, and the team set what was a major league record with 257 total homers. Palmeiro drove in 142 runs, Bobby Bonilla 116, Anderson 110 and Cal Ripken Jr. 102. Roberto Alomar hit .328 with 22 home runs. Over the final 59 games, the offense averaged 6.1 runs per game.
Before the hot final two months, the Orioles were frustrated. Gillick planned to trade Bonilla and Wells for prospects ahead of the July 31 trade deadline. Owner Peter Angelos vetoed the deal because he wanted the keep the team intact for a push. Something clicked within the team around that point, although those involved couldn’t pinpoint what. There was no dramatic victory, rock-bottom defeat or team meeting.
“Don’t pay attention to the clock,” Tarasco said. “I remember guys concentrating on the day to day and not looking up.”
Like this season’s Nationals, Johnson managed the team through injuries. He sorted through a crowded lineup to find playing time for players. Through it all, he was the same leader. “Davey’s personality is really true whether you’re winning or losing, a pressure situation, non-pressure situation,” Anderson said.
The Orioles also received help over the final weeks. The White Sox went 28-29 as Baltimore closed strong.
Baltimore handled the pressures of the stretch run with experience. Most of the team’s major contributors were all close to or over 30 years old, such as Ripken, Bonilla, Anderson, Palmeiro, Alomar and Mussina.
“It was an entirely veteran, very predictable team,” Johnson said. “You knew what everybody was going to do. Everybody knew what they needed to do to be successful. We’re still learning somewhat, offensively, defensively.”
In order for the Nationals to reach 89 wins, likely the minimum needed to reach the playoffs, they would have to finish the season on a 35-17 run. Of course, the Nationals could use some help, like the Orioles received from the White Sox..
“Anything can happen,” Gillick said. “One club can win seven in a row and one club can lose seven in a row. You’re not out of it until you’re out of it. . . . You can’t give up the ghost just because you’re eight back with sixty-something to play.
Both Johnson and Tarasco said they draw on their past experience with the ’96 Orioles as reassurance that it is possible to pull out of tough positions late in the season.
“Unbelievable and legendary is the name of this game,” Tarasco said. “If it seems unbelievable in July, it becomes legendary in September.”