Following their literal walk-off win last night over the Rays, the Orioles now sit at 14-6 and a game and a half up on the Yankees in the AL East. Considering their current offensive slump, it’s been quite a start for a team that was expected to once again rely heavily on their bats.
By all accounts, this has been a historic start to the season for the Birds. Through the season’s first 20 games, 14 wins matches their second highest total in franchise history.
Let’s take a look back through the record books at the best Orioles starts through 20 games in franchise history. If past patterns are due to repeat themselves, this will certainly be a season to watch in 2017.
The 1966 Orioles started their season hot out of the gate, putting together the best 20-game start in Orioles franchise history. They never cooled down either. Hank Bauer’s O’s went on to win 97 games and captured the AL pennant, finishing nine games ahead of the runner-up Minnesota Twins. It was the first AL pennant for the Baltimore Orioles since the team came to the Charm City in 1954.
A week later, the O’s went on to sweep the heavily-favored Los Angeles Dodgers in four games to win the organization’s first World Series title.
The team’s success offensively was led by the recently-acquired Frank Robinson. Traded by the Reds prior to the season in exchange for Milt Pappas, Jack Badschun, and Dick Simpson, Robinson went on to win the MVP in ’66 as well as the Triple Crown. Robinson batted .316 with 49 home runs and 122 RBI.
Reds owner Bill DeWitt was definitely mistaken when he called Robinson “an old 30” in trying to justify the trade. There’s a reason it’s often brought up in discussions regarding the most lopsided deals in baseball history.
Second place in MVP voting that season after Frank Robinson was none other than Brooks Robinson. Taking home third place, was BBQ master Boog Powell. So yeah, the Orioles were pretty good. That being said, while their offense carried the team in the regular season, it was their pitching that won them their first World Series.
Facing a Dodgers starting rotation led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, it was the Orioles staff who stole the show. Dave McNally allowed two ER in the first three innings of the series, and from then on, the Orioles pitching staff blanked the Dodgers for 33 consecutive innings.
In game two, 20-year old Jim Palmer threw a complete game shutout out-dueling Sandy Koufax as the Orioles won 6-0. In games three and four, the Orioles won consecutive 1-0 games with complete game shutouts from Wally Bunkner and Dave McNally, respectively.
Following a down year in 1967 that saw the World Champion Orioles finish nine games under .500, the O’s didn’t take long to rebound in 1968. They won 14 of their first 20 games and then two more before losing 10 of their next 12 games. Despite the slump, the Birds never slipped below .500 and finished the season at 91-71.
While 91 wins most likely would have been good enough to get them into the playoffs in 2017, there was no catching the Detroit Tigers who won the AL pennant with 101 wins. Unfortunately for the ’68 Birds, the playoff system in the MLB didn’t expand to four teams until the next season following the league’s expansion to 24 teams and the creation of Eastern and Western divisions.
Brooks Robinson finished the year second in the AL in WAR among position players despite having an OBP of only .304. That’ll happen when you accumulate an absurd 4.5 defensive wins above replacement, a career high for Brooksie. For comparison’s sake, Manny Machado has only amassed 10.4 defensive wins above replacement in his career to date.
The 1968 season also saw the replacement of manager Hank Bauer shortly after the all-star break despite the Orioles being in third place in the AL at the time. Replacing Bauer with the team’s first-base coach, Earl Weaver, proved to be the right call.
Fresh off their second AL pennant in 1969 and a disappointing upset loss to the Mets in the World Series, the Orioles came out in 1970 looking like a team on a mission. The Birds won their first five games of the season on their way to winning 14 of their first 20. From there, the team never looked back and ran away with the AL East. They finished 108-54 to win the division by 15 games over the runner-up New York Yankees.
The O’s got back to the World Series for the second season in a row, but this time came away with the organization’s second championship.
The 1970 Orioles essentially played with the same team that won 109 games in 1969 and won back-to-back-to-back AL pennants in 1969, 1970, and 1971. The Birds did well to complete the Earl of Baltimore’s mantra of “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.”
The staff was led by three 20-game winners in Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, and Dave McNally who together combined to throw nearly 900 innings. Behind them, CF Paul Blair, 2B Davey Johnson, and 3B Brooks Robinson all won Gold Glove Awards. And providing the offense, Boog Powell won the 1970 AL MVP with 35 homers and an OPS of .962 while Frank Robinson added another 25 home runs and a batting average of .306. Pretty much Earl’s famous formula to a T.
One thing hotter than the Orioles 14-6 start in 1970 was their finish. The team won 19 of their last 22 games and entered the post-season on an 11-game winning streak. From there, the Birds swept the Minnesota Twins, who were the only team to win their regular season series against them, in the ALCS and won their second World Series in five games over Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine.”
The most recent 14-6 start for the Orioles, excluding this current season, occurred in a completely different era than the previous three. So much so, that their 54-year-old manager was none other than former Orioles second baseman Davey Johnson who started on the ’66, ’68, and ’70 teams. It must’ve felt like old times for Johnson as the Orioles became the sixth team in major league history to go wire-to-wire on their way to winning 98 games.
The Orioles built their lead early on in the 1997 season with pitching (there seems to be a trend here) with Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, and Jimmy Key leading the rotation. Mussina started the year nursing a calcium deposit in his right elbow, but by the end of June was 10-2 on his way to a runner-up finish in the AL Cy Young. Meanwhile, Scott Erickson began the season winning 8 of his first 9 decisions and 36-year-old veteran Jimmy Key found himself sitting at 11-1 in mid-June.
On offense, the Orioles finished with the 4th most home runs in the AL behind a mostly balanced attack. Rafael Palmeiro launched 38 bombs on the year, but behind him the Birds had guys like Ripken, Anderson, Surhoff, and Hoiles all with home run totals in the teens. Second on the team after Palmeiro was actually former 4th overall pick Jeffery Hammonds who hit out 21 home runs in what would be his most productive season in the big leagues.
The ’97 Orioles ultimately fell to the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS in six games, but their 98 wins haven’t been matched by an Orioles team since. Perhaps this team in 2017 will be the one.
While the 2005 Orioles may have started the season 13-7 and gone on to lose 88 games, 14 wins through 20 games seems to be the magic number. In the four previous instances, you have two World Series wins, a 91-win season, and a wire-to-wire AL East Championship.
Do you think history is due to repeat itself or are you still skeptical on this year’s team?Perhaps you have some memories to share from the ’66, ’70, ’68, or ’97 seasons. Pop in the comments section and let us know.