The beer was gone. That, in itself, was a feat. For a team without much major league postseason experience, the Orioles sure celebrated in a plastic-sheet-covered clubhouse like the most seasoned of veterans.

But just after Heston Kjerstad had been tossed into a laundry cart and covered in various toppings that congealed into a gelatinous mess that dripped down his stained blonde hair, manager Brandon Hyde emerged from the corner of the room. He had cried earlier, watching the joy spill out in the form of a champagne supernova. But now Hyde’s voice rang out over the thumping bass, issuing a rallying call that cut through the chaos.

“Let’s go to Houston,” he yelled. “We’re not done yet.”

Far from it.

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The Orioles allowed themselves a raucous celebration in the aftermath of securing their first playoff berth on Sunday since 2016, yet they soon left behind the alcohol-pooled floor of the Camden Yards clubhouse for a plane to Houston. In about 24 hours, they would be on the field again. Sunday was the first check mark, a milestone achievement worth celebrating because there are no givens in baseball, but Baltimore has expressed that reaching the postseason isn’t the be-all, end-all.

The Orioles defeated the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday in walk-off fashion. Both teams had clinched the playoffs in the middle of the ninth inning, yet they played on as fervently as ever for 11 innings. There’s so much more at stake, particularly in a head-to-head matchup with the Rays, from which Baltimore established a two-game lead in the American League East after dropping the first two games of a critical four-game set.

Each night for the final two weeks, the Rays and Orioles will go against each other.

Not directly on the diamond, as they did Sunday for the final time this regular season, but in parks around the country, with one eye on the task at hand and another on their divisional foe’s score.

“We have a lot that we still want to do,” said right-hander Kyle Gibson, who watched the whirlwind from a safe distance after the initial eruption of champagne. “This is great, but in 24 hours we’ve got another game, and that game means a lot. We talked about it like, ‘Hey, we’re not staying here until 8 p.m. We’re going to get into Houston because we’ve got work to do.’”

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Over the next two weeks, the Orioles will play their final 13 games of the season, starting Monday night against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. There’s no time for a hangover lineup — the kind often employed by clinching teams to rest stars (or those who were especially exuberant the night before) — because Baltimore is still on the hunt for its first American League East divisional championship since 2014.

The Orioles can clinch the division with any combination of wins for Baltimore and losses for Tampa Bay that equal 10.

The immediate task, then, comes in Houston. The Astros and Orioles are the top two teams in the American League and these three games — just like the four against the Rays before them — could be a preview of an October playoff series.

Baltimore Orioles first baseman Ryan O’Hearn is sprayed in the face with champagne in the clubhouse following the team’s playoff-clinching win against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023. The Orioles earned a spot in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“In college, we win the College World Series, and that’s kind of now the bar that is set,” said catcher Adley Rutschman, whose arrival in May 2022 helped shepherd in Baltimore’s winning ways. “You are just trying to reach that high again and again. You’re always chasing that the next year, because it’s a new team and everything. When you get drafted, you think about that. It’s cool we got this step. And now, it’s on to the next.”

There’s more than pride involved with the prospect of winning the division. The top two teams in either league receive a bye through the opening three-game wild-card round — giving those teams six days between the end of the regular season and the first game of the AL division series to rest. Particularly for a pitching staff that has multiple members who have already pitched more innings than their previous career highs, that could prove invaluable.

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That’s all ahead of Baltimore, however. For the hours the Orioles spent dousing themselves with champagne and beer in the clubhouse, thoughts of what’s next were pushed aside for just a moment.

They weren’t totally gone — they never are. But the spray of spirits momentarily washed away the immediate concern.

“We’re ready to go. We got, what?” first baseman Ryan O’Hearn pondered, trying to determine in how many hours he’d step onto the field once more. With a beer in hand, he smiled and let it go. “We got plenty of time.”

Then O’Hearn drifted into the fracas once more, enjoying however many hours it was.

They had earned it, these Orioles. They weren’t about to waste it, even with all that’s still to come.

andy.kostka@thebaltimorebanner.com

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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