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Buck Starts Here: Showalter leads Orioles to long-awaited ALCS

Buck Showalter has guided the Baltimore Orioles to the ALCS for the first time since 1997.

In the ninth inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series in Detroit on Sunday, Orioles manager Buck Showalter called for an intentional walk, putting the potential winning run on base to set up a game-ending double play. It worked, but that’s not really the point. Sometimes these moves work and sometimes they don’t. If you want to understand why Showalter is turning this October into his own personal managing showcase, look at how he did it – and how the Orioles reacted.

An intentional walk is often seen as an act of weakness, an admission that a manager doesn’t trust his pitcher to get a batter out. On the mound, Showalter convinced closer Zach Britton the IBB was an I(HEART)U; he told Britton he knew he would force a double play with his sinker. In centerfield, Adam Jones trusted his manager instinctively: “I don’t challenge what Buck does. He knew what he was doing.” And general manager Dan Duquette watched appreciatively: “That told everybody that Buck was managing to win the series right there. It takes a lot of guts to do it. It’s an admirable trait.”

Showalter arrived in Baltimore five years ago with a reputation for being so rigid that his baseball card should be made of steel. He once chastised Ken Griffey Jr. for wearing his hat backward in batting practice – when Griffey didn’t even play for his team. Baseball is no stranger to grumpy old men, but Showalter was something of a prodigy in that area. He was grumpy long before he was old.

“I'm starting to say things like, ‘Back when I played …’” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1994, when he was all of 38.

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Showalter has revived the Orioles, and his own reputation, by being a steady hand in an unsteady game. His players know exactly what to expect from him. Jones calls him “a genius” for how he manages his bullpen; relievers all know their roles. And Showalter shows his players he believes in them. One reason Britton trusted Showalter in Game 3: “He believed in me all the way back in spring training, when I didn’t know if I had a spot on the team.”

Buck Showater top

If Showalter still longs for the days when he was a minor-leaguer, he doesn’t show it. But Orioles fans may recognize a link. These Orioles play baseball the way legendary O’s manager Earl Weaver intended.

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Weaver, who managed Baltimore from 1968 to 1982 and again in 1985 and '86, famously said the key to winning was “pitching and the three-run homer.” No team in baseball relies on that formula like the Orioles. They hit 22 three-run homers, and another six grand slams. It is surprising, then, to hear Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley say, “I hate livin’ and dyin’ by the three-run home run.”

Presley tells his players, “You hit home runs by accident. You don’t hit home runs by trying to do it.” The Orioles emphasize fundamental, situational hitting in crucial situations: two outs, man in scoring position, figure out what the pitcher is trying to do, then hit. It just so happens that the Orioles have a lot of low-average, power hitters. Showalter has adapted his team to its talents. It is what great managers do.

For most of his managerial career, Showalter was the guy who laid the groundwork for a championship with his smarts and toughness, then got fired and replaced with a softer touch. The Yankees won four World Series in five years after they got rid of him in 1995. Showalter built the Diamondbacks from an expansion club into contenders, but they fired him after three years, then won the World Series in 2001, the season after he left.

What happened to the guy who was good, but not good enough?

“He is more in tune to the players,” says Presley, who worked with Showalter in Arizona from 1998 to 2000. “Nowadays, you’ve got 25 personalities and you have to deal with them all. He’s done a really good job with that. Buck has done a great job tailoring our style to the personnel we have on the field.”

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Britton says he was aware of Showalter’s rep before he met him, “but he is so much different than what people outside the organization think of him.” Showalter has learned to be rigid in the right ways. He sets a structure, but does not expect perfection.

This month, Showalter may finally get the chance to finish the ride. At the very least, the Orioles know they are playing for one of the best managers in the game. The experience is so rewarding that someday, some of them will inevitably play for lesser managers and grumble,  “Back when I played for Buck Showalter …”