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The 2014 Orioles were the franchise’s last, best chance at a World Series

Just six years ago, the Orioles were a dominant club with a clear path to the World Series. Then the Royals happened.

85th MLB All Star Game
Sigh. Remember how good Nelson Cruz was?

This week, the SB Nation network has been looking back at the best teams never to win a championship.

For the Orioles, we can’t limit it to just one. Tyler Young profiled the 1969 Orioles, who won a franchise-record 109 games but lost to the underdog Miracle Mets in the World Series. Mark Brown wrote of the wire-to-wire 1997 Orioles, who steamrolled their way to an AL East title before botching the ALCS. You could also make strong cases for the 1971 or 1979 Orioles, who had the third- and fourth- best regular season records in O’s history but both lost to the Pirates in a crushing pair of World Series.

Depending on your age, you may have vivid memories of some, all, or none of those O’s clubs. But chances are you remember the most recent great Orioles team to fall devastatingly short of championship glory: the 2014 squad.

It was only six years ago. It feels like sixty. But they were the most talented, most dominant O’s club of the last two decades, and looked to be on a World Series path until the fates aligned against them in the ALCS.

Dammit, Royals.

The Birds had been on the upswing for years since Buck Showalter’s arrival as manager during the 2010 season. In 2012, they broke their 15-year playoff drought with a fun, unexpected charge into a wild card slot, buoyed by ridiculous excellence in one-run and extra-innings games. By 2014, they were one of the most well-rounded teams in baseball. Pitching, defense, and home runs led the charge. They were a team out of Earl Weaver’s heart.

The O’s didn’t have one overpowering, bona fide ace; instead, they carried a rotation full of capable, steady hurlers, all of whom were better than league average pitchers by ERA+. Chris Tillman anchored the staff with 34 starts, going 13-6 with a 3.34 ERA. He was joined by Wei-Yin Chen (16-6, 3.54) and Miguel Gonzalez (10-9, 3.23), both brilliant pickups by GM Dan Duquette in his inaugural O’s season two years earlier, as well as 2013 midseason acquisition Bud Norris (15-8, 3.65). Kevin Gausman, the Orioles’ former first round pick, didn’t join the big league rotation until June but posted a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts.

The 2014 bullpen, as was also the case in 2012, was lethal, compiling a 3.10 ERA as a unit. The standout of the bunch was failed starting pitcher Zack Britton (then known as Zach), who moved to the bullpen in spring training because he couldn’t be optioned to the minors, and took to the role like a fish to water. Armed with an unhittable sinker, Britton allowed just two earned runs in his first 16 games before supplanting Tommy Hunter in the closer role in mid-May. From there, he converted 37 of his 41 save opportunities. The relief corps had plenty of firepower to back him up, including the reliable submariner Darren O’Day, Hunter, and newcomer Brad Brach, who emerged as a dependable middle relief option. The trade deadline acquisition of dominant lefty Andrew Miller brought another shutdown weapon to the pen.

The pitching staff could credit much of its success to a stupendous defense, which was a hallmark of Showalter’s early O’s clubs. The 2014 Orioles led the American League in Defensive Runs Saved (58). Shortstop J.J. Hardy won his third straight Gold Glove, as did center fielder Adam Jones. Right fielder Nick Markakis earned his second.

And then there were the home runs. Oh, the home runs! The Birds bashed 211 roundtrippers, leading the majors by a comfortable margin (the Rockies were second with 186). Duquette landed a coup in mid-February by inking free agent Nelson Cruz, who had been left out in the cold by teams not wanting to sign an aging DH who’d served a 50-game suspension in 2013 for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. For the low price of one year and $8 million, Cruz delivered an MLB-leading 40 home runs along with 108 RBIs. His acquisition remains one of the shrewdest moves of the Duquette era. (His other major move that winter, signing Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year contract, turned, not as well.)

Speaking of incredible production at a meager cost, let’s tip our glass to Steve Pearce, who announced his retirement from baseball earlier this week. He was the unexpected breakout star of the 2014 O’s offense. The then-31-year-old entered the year as a well-traveled journeyman who’d never played more than 61 games in a season, and in fact the O’s released him at the end of April. But a day later, Chris Davis got hurt, and the Birds re-signed Pearce. He went on to bat .293/.373/.556 with 21 homers — demolishing his previous career high of four — and led the team with a 5.8 WAR.

With such excellence in every facet of the game, the Orioles bulldozed the competition, finishing 96-66. They took over sole possession of first place on July 5 — just over halfway through the season — and never let it go, ultimately winning the division by 12 games.

Their clinching game on September 16, which you can view in its entirety here (or fast forward to the 3:10 mark for the final out and ensuing bedlam) remains one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The sellout crowd erupting in pure joy. The players mobbing each other in center field. Adam Jones pieing random fans in the stands. Tommy Hunter double-fisting beers during the manic clubhouse celebration. Somewhere amidst that chaotic scene, I was dutifully trying to interview players in the locker room, attempting not to get doused with champagne. (I failed.)

Life was good. And it got even better when the O’s swept the Tigers in the Division Series, winning games started by Cy Young winners Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and David Price. The series was highlighted by the legendary Delmon Young Double that nearly brought Camden Yards crashing to the ground. Everything was coming up Orioles. They were on a collision course with destiny.

And then they weren’t.

Dammit, Royals.

The plucky-turned-aggravating AL Central club, which had stunned the A’s in a Wild Card Game comeback and then swept the best team in the AL, the Angels, entered the Championship Series as the underdog. They had no power to speak of and an uninspiring starting rotation, but relied on their speed and their dominant bullpen to eke out wins. I knew it was possible they’d give the O’s a good fight in the ALCS. What I never would’ve expected is that they’d win every single bleepin’ game, with a total margin of victory of just six runs.

The Royals stunned the O’s in an extra-innings opener in Baltimore, bashing Tillman to take an early lead and breaking the tie against an uncharacteristically leaky Birds bullpen. In Game 2, the Royals dinked and doinked their way to victory through seeing-eye singles and broken-bat bloopers, every one of which was agonizingly out of the reach of an O’s fielder. Just like that, the Birds were down 2-0 in the series. Royals speedster Jarrod Dyson confidently declared the series wouldn’t return to Baltimore, an annoying comment made all the more annoying by the fact he turned out to be right.

The Orioles’ stellar 2014 campaign ended with a whimper in Kansas City, where they lost back-to-back 2-1 decisions in Game 3 and Game 4 as the Royals completed the sweep. And with that, it was over. The Orioles’ World Series drought extended to 31 years (and currently sits at 36).

Who knows what would’ve happened if any of those one- or two-run losses in the ALCS had gone the other way? Would it have been the Orioles representing the AL in the World Series? Would they have beaten San Francisco where the Royals didn’t? We’ll never know.

Once again...dammit, Royals.