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Yanks-O's sets stage for special September

Four-game weekend set could give one team prime position in the AL East race
09/06/2012 12:18 PM ET
By Joe Auriemma

It has been 15 years since Davey Johnson led the Orioles to their last AL East crown.(AP)
It has been 15 seasons since the Baltimore Orioles were playing meaningful and significant baseball in September, and there is an entire generation of Yankees fans who don't remember (or weren't even born) when the Yankees and Orioles played “big time” series every year – and many who don’t even remember the epic 1996 ALCS that began with Derek Jeter’s controversial home run and ended with the Yankees’ first trip to the World Series in 15 years. All they know is Yankees-Red Sox and just recently Yankees-Rays, but the Orioles and Yankees used to have some heated battles that produced great and riveting baseball.

But in 2012, the Yanks-O’s rivalry is finally “back,” and their four-game set beginning Thursday night at Camden Yards will end with one team sitting atop the AL East standings all by their lonesome.

With 76 wins in their first 136 games this season, Baltimore is closing in on some uncharted territory; since their last playoff appearance in 1997, the Orioles have not won more than 79 games in a season, and haven’t even won this many since they went 78-84 in 2004. The last decade and a half has been a rough run for a once-storied franchise and its proud fan base, one that has unfortunately become accustomed to a losing atmosphere. But Baltimore can be (and is) a big-time baseball hub once again, and this season is certainly a step in the right direction.

It was exactly 15 years ago, on September 6, 1997, when the Orioles won their third straight game of a four-game series with the Yankees to push their record to 88-51 and extend their lead in the AL East to 9.5 games. The Orioles would win only 10 more games in their final 23, giving the Yankees an opportunity to slash that deficit to two games, but ultimately the 98-win Orioles would hold off the wild-card 96-win Yankees.

That marked the second straight year that the two rivals had finished one-two in the division, although in 1996, it was the Yankees who won their first division crown since 1981 before toppling the O’s in that much-remembered ALCS and winning their first World Series since 1978.

The 1997 season saw the O’s on top, but they once again fell in the ALCS, dropping a heart-breaking six-game series to the Indians – and then the bottom fell out. As the Yankees went on to win 11 AL East crowns, six pennants, and four World Series over the next 14 years, Baltimore has suffered through 14 straight losing seasons, even finishing as high as third in the AL East just once.

If that scenario sounds familiar, it should, at least for long-time Yankees fans who remember the 1980s and early-1990s when the Orioles were consistently at the top of the division year in and year out and the Yankees went through their worst playoff drought in team history from 1981-1996.

Flash forward to 2012, and it’s the Yankees in the playoff hunt annually once again – but with the upstart Orioles back in a big way, the rivalry has been reborn.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was catching for the Bombers the last time the Yankees and Orioles played in a series of this magnitude in September, and with his team clinging to a one-game lead that just 24 hours ago had been whittled down to a tie, Girardi knows the significance of this all-important four game set.

“Everyone knows the importance of it,” Girardi said. “You’ve got three teams that are really grouped together. You can go back to when we talked in Spring Training. We thought our division was going to be extremely tough and there were going to be teams grouped together in the month of September and it was going to go down to the end. It’s four big games in Baltimore.”

The 38-year old Derek Jeter fully remembers playing games against the Orioles that were high in intensity, as 1996 was his first full taste of the playoffs. But he also remembers playing for Buck Showalter when he first came up in 1995, and he is certainly not surprised at the position Showalter has his team in this late in the season.

“Buck has them playing good baseball,” Jeter said. “We're 130-something games into the season. They're right there. They deserve a lot of credit, they've done a lot of good things and it's going to be tough for us."

It's no mystery how the Orioles have gotten here; they've done it with quality pitching from their young arms, timely hitting and a terrific bullpen. A lot of credit goes to General Manager Dan Duquette for building a deep squad, and a lot more goes to Showalter for implementing those pieces properly. The team that everyone thought was going to eventually go away hasn’t, and finds themselves in the perhaps the franchise’s most important series since Bill Clinton was President. This ragtag bunch might not be Cal Ripken Jr., Rafael Palmeiro, Brady Anderson, Roberto Alomar, Mike Mussina and Jimmy Key, but they have found an identity all their own.

The stage is set for what could be a very fun weekend of baseball. There are still 22 games left to be played after Sunday, but the next four days could set the stage for a very fun run in September for the Yankees, Orioles and Rays, a three-team race that beckons back to the 1970's when the Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees were fighting for the right to make the postseason every year.

This time, all three could conceivably make it, but as they say, unless you’re the lead dog the view never changes – and in this case, that view is a Division Championship banner to be raised next April.

Follow Joe Auriemma on Twitter: @JoeAuriemmaYES

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