ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian gets hit with the majority of the shaving cream pie that Robert Andino meant for ninth-inning hero Nate McLouth after the Orioles’ 3-2 win over the Rays. (Patrick McDermott/GETTY IMAGES)

September hasn’t felt right in this town for 15 years because the Orioles weren’t part of it. Now, the air in Camden Yards smells and feels like it should once more — crisp as tension, cool as contention and crystal clear as a future that’s worth seeing.

Unexpectedly, almost impossibly, the Orioles are tied for the American League East lead with the Yankees with just 20 games left in the season. With 80 wins already, the Birds are 18 games over .500 and poised for their first winning year since 1997.

All of that freshening joy burst loose on Wednesday night thanks to the 20-year-old catalyst who has sparked the Birds on their recent 25-11 run. In the top of the ninth inning, tied 2-2 with Tampa Bay, Manny Machado, a converted shortstop with a month’s experience at third base, charged a swinging bunt with two outs and pinch runner Rich Thompson racing from second to third base. Machado barehanded the ball, faked a hard underhand throw to first, then spun to flip to shortstop J.J. Hardy, who’d snuck behind Thompson, trapping him off third to end the threat as the crowd of 26,076 roared.

Machado then led off the bottom of the ninth with a single, went to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored the walk-off run in a 3-2 win on a blast into the right field corner by Nate McLouth, the man who has taken over as emergency leadoff man since Nick Markakis broke his thumb on Sunday. Nothing unusual: a savvy, spontaneous play by a teenager, good fundamentals and a winning hit by an adrift free agent picked up in June.

Add a strong six-inning start by Miguel Gonzalez, grabbed gratis from the Mexican League, and the usual scoreless relief of Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson, and you have the miraculous Birds all bundled up in one game. “Kind of convenient,” Manager Buck Showalter said. “That’s us.”

Many deserve credit, but Machado is an inevitable magnet. “Nothing went through my head. I faked [the throw] and we had him,” he said. “Things that you never plan or practice just come out. I’ve never had that play, even when I was a shortstop. And J.J. read it. Most shortstops would still be standing at short.”

These are magic moments again in Baltimore. Don’t be quick to think they’ll end.

“Baseball has ‘best days,’ ” Showalter reflected before the game. “I love the early morning before the first workout of spring training. The sun’s just coming up and the steam is rising off the grass. And the off day before opening day, when everything is still ‘best case,’ is outstanding.

“But the other one, the best one, is the workout day before postseason. In ’95, I was standing by the cage and George [Steinbrenner] came over and just put his arm around my shoulder, stood there and didn’t say anything. The coffee tastes good that time of year.”

Showalter longs for that workout day early in October, the one before the Orioles’ first playoff game in so long. “They say the season is a marathon and September is a sprint,” he said. “That feels backwards. It seems like the season flies past but September just inches along. Every game means so much it feels like a marathon.”

All season, the Birds have tested faith, defied disbelief. This week, they’ve pushed their act to the brink with Markakis’s thumb, then, perhaps, the loss of right-hander Jason Hammel on Tuesday with his bum knee driving him out of a game early.

How does it feel now, Jason? “It feels like I can’t throw a baseball,” he said tartly.

The Orioles have ignored the disasters piled on top of their inadequacies all season. But these are surely the last straws. Aren’t they? Former Orioles star Brady Anderson, who’s been retired for 10 years but is still a fitness fanatic, walks past General Manager Dan Duquette. Anderson, who does some coaching, is in uniform.

“You should sign me,” Anderson says. “Put me in right field until Nick’s back.”

Duquette knows that decades of old Orioles wish they could come back for three weeks to try to make this pennant race dream come true. Ex-Orioles pitcher Dave Johnson’s doing the best job of it — his son, rookie pitcher Steve, is 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA.

“We have a much better ballclub now than we did earlier in the year,” Duquette said. Then, the scholarly type, he assigns a research project. Everybody talks about the Orioles’ run differential — they’ve been outscored by 22 — as proof that they are playing over their heads, that they are lucky, that their 26-7 record in one-run games is a once-every-20-year fluke and that every injury or loss is a harbinger of collapse.

“See what we’ve done the last month or so,” says Duquette, aware that this time frame coincides with the arrival of Machado, who is hitting .272 and has improved the Birds’ entire infield defense, allowing Mark Reynolds to go from bad third baseman to good-fielding and now hot-slugging first baseman.

And Duquette, of course, is correct. In their last 29 games, including seven against the Yankees and 11 more against the contending Rangers, Tigers and White Sox and Rays, the Orioles have outscored their high-quality foes by 31 runs, a rate you’d expect of a 100-win team. Maybe Baltimore isn’t that good. But those who think they’ll inevitably collapse may not realize that in a league full of flawed teams the Orioles, even injured, are among the least shaky clubs left standing.

Still, the O’s are a team held together at times with spit and string.

“My mother used to say to me, ‘The good Lord won’t give you more than he thinks you can handle. But I wish he didn’t have so much confidence in you,’ ” Showalter said.

“What are you going to do?” he says, shrugging.

Can the Orioles win enough of their last 20 games, perhaps 11 of them, to make the playoffs, beating (gulp) the Yanks in the AL East or edging the Athletics, Rays and Angels in a fight for two wild cards?

Each of these crisp September nights the standings will shuffle. The Orioles’ fate will seam to soar or sink. Please, sir, can we have just a few more one-run wins?

In three brief weeks, the pennant race will be over. But, until then, it will inch along, like an interminable, marvelous marathon.

For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to