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After 15 consecutive losing seasons, the Orioles have finally made the playoffs, along with the Washington Nationals. (Courtesy of MCT Campus)

by Pat Ralph

For baseball fans, October is the best month of the year. With less than a week to go until the 2012 MLB playoffs begin, it already has the makings to be one of the most intriguing postseasons yet.

The biggest headline heading into the postseason is the new playoff format, which requires a Wild Card play-in game in both the American and National Leagues.

The top two finishers in each league’s Wild Card race will play a one-game playoff to determine who advances to the Division Series. This format gives teams that would otherwise be unable to qualify for the postseason a chance to compete in October.

However, this is not the only eye-opener to this year’s edition of October baseball, as it will consist of one of the more surprising group of teams to play in the postseason.

When one looks at the teams that will play (or at least have a very good chance at playing) in the postseason, one can look no further than the tremendous baseball that has been played along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway this summer. If someone was to say last year that both the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals would be in position to play in October just a year later, the comment would have probably ended up as a funny headline on Leno.

But with the postseason just a few days away, the possibilities of a Beltway World Series are high.

It’s hard not to start with the team that has gone from the cellar in the National League East to the best record in baseball.

The Washington Nationals are a franchise that is quite unfamiliar with playing baseball in October. Since the team’s first season in 2005, the Nationals have spent five of their seven seasons existing in the basement of their division, including two seasons in which they finished with a league-worst record of 59-103.

However, one of the benefits of finishing last each year is getting a good draft pick, and the Nationals have certainly made the most of their opportunities. In 2009, the Nationals used the No. 1 overall selection to take pitching standout Stephen Strasburg (15-6, 3.16 ERA), followed in 2010 by the No. 1 overall selection of catcher-turned-outfielder Bryce Harper. With a record of good draft picks, the Nationals have changed their organization from an expansion team of misfit players to a young and talented squad.

Along with the high profile draft picks of Strasburg and Harper, the Nationals have brought in several veterans to provide experience.

The Nationals made a seven-year, $126 million investment in All-Star outfielder Jayson Werth, who the Nationals are hoping will bring playoff experience from his days as a member of the Phillies.

The Nationals also brought in left-handed pitcher Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA) to help improve their starting rotation, as he and Strasburg have anchored the best pitching staff in the National League this year.

Another fine addition to the Nationals’ squad has been veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche, who currently ranks fourth in home runs in the National League with 32.

With a solid combination of veteran experience, talented youth and valuable role players, the Nationals have been able to seize control of the National League East crown this season, dethroning the five-time world champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Under the leadership of manager Davey Johnson, who led the New York Mets to a World Series title in 1986, Nationals fans are hoping for a championship of their own in the nation’s capital.

Despite the fact that Strasburg will not be pitching in the postseason due to an innings limit, the Nationals’ hold serve against their NL opponents, as the road to the Fall Classic goes through Nationals Park. With a strong starting rotation and bullpen, along with a potent offense led by Harper, LaRoche and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, there is great hope in Washington, D.C., that “Natitude” will reign supreme in October.

Just as surprising as the Nationals have been this season, the Baltimore Orioles have also proven to be one of the darlings of 2012.

Heading into the final week of the season, the Birds stand a game behind the New York Yankees in the American League East, and hold a one-game lead over the Oakland Athletics in the American League Wild Card race. The Orioles have not finished over .500, won the AL East or participated in October baseball since 1997, when they were defeated in the AL Championship Series by the Cleveland Indians.

If the season ended today, the Orioles would not only finish with a winning record and qualify for the postseason, but they would also get to host the Wild Card play-in game.

The Orioles have spent most of the last 15 years in the basement of the AL East, as the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox have controlled the division for the vast majority of this time period. However, as the Yankees have continued to struggle these past two months and the Red Sox have had one of their most embarrassing seasons, the Orioles find themselves in position to spoil the October party.

The Orioles have been having so much success this season due to their determination, under the direction of manager Buck Showalter.

A manager renowned for getting the most out of his players, Showalter has completely changed the attitude from last place losers to playoff contenders on the Inner Harbor.

Unlike most teams in the postseason, the Orioles do not blow anyone away with outstanding star power. However, outfielder Adam Jones is a superstar in the making and he has proved that this season. An All-Star this year, Jones has led the offense, hitting .292 with 32 home runs, 81 RBIs and 183 hits.

As for pitching, the Orioles have been led by one of the best closers in baseball: Jim Johnson. Johnson leads the MLB with 48 saves and has already broken the Orioles’ record for most saves in a season when he surpassed Randy Myers’ record of 45, set in 1997.

The Orioles may not have the most talented team, but they have the willingness to fight that keeps them in any game.

With teams such as the Red Sox and Phillies not participating in this years’ postseason, surprise teams like the Nationals and Orioles take center stage this autumn.

There’s a changing of the guard in postseason baseball this fall, and it will be entertaining to watch.

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