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As Orioles head to Toronto for key September series, this feels familiar

Back in 1989, the Why Not? Orioles had their season meet its end in Toronto. Here’s hoping a sorta-similar 2016 team has another fate.

Manny Machado smiles and angelic light shines down from above.
Doesn’t this face just make you happy?
Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

One of the unassailable laws of Baltimore sports fandom is this: Cito sucks. That would be Cito as in former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who, as the AL All-Star Game manager in 1993, did not use Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina in the game, despite it being hosted at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

That’s not the only reason why Cito sucks. It’s not even the first reason, chronologically, why Cito sucks, because Gaston happened to be at the helm of the 1989 Blue Jays team that knocked the Why Not? Orioles out of postseason contention in the final weekend of that season by winning two out of three games, edging the O’s in the division by a mere two games.

Fast forward to today, 27 years later, with the 2016 edition of the Orioles heading up to Toronto for a three-game set that will have major playoff ramifications for one, or both, of these two teams.

From 1989 to 2016

Cito is long gone (though he still sucks). The stadium in which the O’s lost those games, then known as SkyDome, is still there, though it’s gone from a brand-new wonder to a corporate-branded monstrosity that these days is filled with stereotype-breaking angry Canadians who’ve taken on the aspect of mega-jerk Jose Bautista and like to express that in various ways, including throwing beer onto the field.

Of course there’s no actual reason for there to be any connection between the 1989 Orioles and the 2016 Orioles late-season trips to Toronto except in the minds of the incredibly superstitious. Everyone involved, player and manager, is long gone, unless you count pitchers Dave Johnson and Ben McDonald doing radio, or outfielder Brady Anderson being a special assistant to the GM these days.

The 2016 edition of the O’s will have plenty of their own reasons for wanting to beat the Jays now, from recent history with some bad blood to just wanting to secure their own postseason spot this year.

There’s the wild card now, two spots for them in fact, and the O’s enter their penultimate series a game and a half behind the Jays. That’ll be either a game or two by tomorrow; the Jays must finish a series with the Yankees. Let’s hope they play 18 innings and their bullpen gets trashed. With a good series, the O’s could leave Toronto tied or even ahead of the Jays.

There can only be one Why Not? Orioles. After all, what made them what they were is the way they rebounded from the 107-loss disaster of 1988 to unexpectedly contend into the final series of the season. The 2016 O’s are unexpectedly contending, defying the experts and computers who picked them to come in last in the division, but a little rebound after an 81-win season is nothing compared to the 1989 team.

A familiar story for the Orioles, sort of

Still, the similarities are there, and if you’re superstitious, it’s enough to make you a little nervous. The 1989 O’s were successful despite having one of the worst starting rotations in MLB. They spent a good chunk of the season - three full months - in first place in the division before faltering a bit in the second half.

One way those O’s were successful is that they were able to outperform their Pythagorean expected win-loss record by four games. They were very good at home, not so good on the road, and had an uncanny ability to win extra inning games. They had a good closer in Gregg Olson and even a 10-win reliever in Mark Williamson, despite the fact that it’s totally weird to have a reliever win 10 games.

These are all things you can map directly to the 2016 team. The 2016 O’s starting rotation is, relative to the rest of MLB, even worse than the 1989 team’s was. Yet despite that, they spent a whole lot of time in first place in the AL East for the year.

This year’s Orioles team entered Sunday’s play four games ahead of their Pythagorean win expectation. Their home record of 50-31 is one of the best the franchise has ever compiled. They are 6-2 in extra inning games and haven’t lost one since June.

Zach Britton is flawless on save chances for the season and sure enough, there’s a 10-win reliever sitting there in Brad Brach. It’s even more uncanny than that: Brach’s record is 10-3, exactly what Williamson brought into Toronto in 1989.

This last may be the most disturbing of the bunch, because as it worked out, Williamson was the losing pitcher in both of the games of the series that the O’s lost. There is no such thing as destiny, nor curses or any such things, but, in the unlikely event that Brach takes two losses this weekend to end the year with a 10-5 record, you might have to wonder for a second.

It was a brutal pair of games the O’s lost in the first two games of that 1989 series. The Friday night game saw unheralded 18-game winner Jeff Ballard keep the Jays off the board for 7.1 innings, but when he ran into trouble in the eighth and Olson was summoned, Olson ended up allowing the tying run to score on a wild pitch. A blown save. The game went into extra innings, where Williamson ultimately lost the game in the eleventh.

In the Saturday game, the next-to-last of the season, with the O’s needing to win to pull back within a game of the AL East, they got another unexpected strong start, this time from Johnson, who pitched seven innings. After walking the leadoff man in the eighth, Johnson was relieved by lefty Kevin Hickey, who pulled a Brian Matusz by walking the only batter he faced.

So Williamson, the eighth inning guy of his day, came in to put out the fire. A sacrifice bunt, two singles, and a sacrifice fly later and a 3-1 Orioles lead was a 4-3 deficit. The Orioles out-hit the Jays, 9-4, in this game, and lost. I was alive for this, though I do not remember experiencing it the way that I would now, because I was only five. But my goodness, this must have really been hard to take. The Jays won the East with only 89 wins that year!

What’s past is not actually prologue

All that said, the weight of history has absolutely no bearing on this series, unless you want to count it as a curiously coincidental footnote. If the Orioles end up losing it, there will be plenty of 2016-related reasons for them to do so, including the fact that they’ve been bad in Toronto in recent years, and this year in particular - and that they’ve been bad at pitching anywhere this year, not just Toronto.

The O’s are 2-5 in Canada so far this year, including a series where they scored six and nine runs on consecutive days and lost both games because they gave up double-digit runs. They sometimes seem almost incapable of both pitching and hitting well in that place. They need to find a way to reverse that in this series.

The stakes are high. The winner of the series could seriously hurt the other’s postseason chances, or, at the very least, make sure that if these two teams play a wild card game, it’ll be hosted by the whoever does the best in the next three games.

That’s a big deal. We will, however, have to wait until tomorrow to find out what’s going to happen. The Orioles themselves could surely use the off day at this juncture, but it is not as ideal for fans who are anxious to find out what’s going to happen so that they can be appropriately morose or jubilant. Good luck to them. They’re going to need it.

And Cito still sucks.