Nothing about the Baltimore Orioles playoff run this season has been likely, but if you had wanted to predict this in spring training, you would have said it would have taken a full season of a healthy Brian Roberts at second base, a breakout season from Nick Markakis, and the emergence of Jake Arrieta and resergence of Brian Matusz on the mound in order for it to happen.
You probably wouldn’t have mentioned Nate McLouth.
You wouldn’t have mentioned him because he hit a combined .210 between 2010 and 2011 with the Atlanta Braves. You wouldn’t have mentioned him because he hadn’t been a regular starter since 2009. And most importantly, you wouldn’t have mentioned him because he was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Only, depending on when in spring training you were making these predictions, he wasn’t even that yet.
McLouth entered this season as a non-roster invitee to Pirates spring training with the hope of making the team that gave him his first shot, after he failed with the team that gave him his second.
The desire for a left-handed bat off the bench and McLouth’s ability to play all three outfield positions overshadowed his lack of production over the past few years and earned him a spot as the Pirates fourth outfielder, and the homecoming to the town in which he first became a star (yes, he was an all-star in 2008) seemed like a good opportunity for him to re-start his career.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, it didn’t work.
McLouth was never able to regain any footing in Pittsburgh, and hit just .140 in sporadic part-time play before being released on May 31st. He signed with the Orioles less than a week later, but was sent to Triple-A Norfolk instead of joining their major league team.
McLouth didn’t exactly tear up the International League either upon arrival. In 47 games, he hit just .244, although he did demonstrate some power for the first time in years, hitting 10 home runs. It was nothing to persuade the Orioles to promote him on merit, but also kept him around long enough to get another chance.
On August 4th, McLouth returned to the majors, and was thrust into the role as the Orioles starting left fielder out of pure necessity. The improbability of his turnaround from that point forward makes about as much sense as the success of the team he joined.
An injury to Markakis left a hole at the top of the Orioles lineup, and McLouth was asked to take on the task in 22 of the team’s final 23 games, after having already been asked to bat third 21 times as well.
Once again, it’s amazing the Orioles have made it this far.
McLouth hasn’t turned into his old all-star form, but he has come to epitomize the good-at-the-right-time Orioles he now helps lead.
In the wild-card game on Friday night, McLouth had a key RBI on a bloop single after a left-handed pitcher had been brought into face him, with the baseball gods finding just enough room in the outfield for the jam-shot flare. In Game One of the ALDS, his two-run single in the third inning gave the Orioles their only two runs and kept it a tie game until the improbable 9th inning implosion by closer Jim Johnson.
We all keep waiting for the steam to run out of this magical ride the Orioles and McLouth have been on together, and perhaps Sunday night’s game is the beginning of that end, but nothing can be taken away from either one. As improbable as it is that a player released by the Pirates, a team themselves in need of any bat they can find, it’s not a move that can be blamed on the Pirates management for giving up on him too soon. If anything, they gave him a chance that few others were willing to give.
But one other team was. And they are the ones now enjoying the ride.