Less than two weeks ago, the Orioles were tied for first place in the American League East. Despite subpar starting pitching, they were winning games -- more than 60 percent of them -- because Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Chris Davis were pounding the ball and the Baltimore bullpen continued to be a stabilizing force.
The top-heavy offense is still producing -- the Orioles scored 17 runs over the weekend -- but with the rotation being held together with bandages and Scotch tape, closer Jim Johnson having blown back-to-back save opportunities, and seemingly every bounce going the other way right now, the 23-20 Orioles are free-falling.
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I’ll let you decide if it is time to panic, but the Orioles have lost five straight games and are 0-5 during their current homestand.
There are ups and downs in every season for every team in every sport, especially in baseball, where 162 games are grinded out in a six-month span. As my colleague Eduardo A. Encina points out, the Orioles took a similar dip this time last year, losing six straight games in late May. We know how their season turned out, but at that time, many were wondering if the bottom was dropping out.
And it’s fair to wonder now if the bottom is dropping out.
No doubt, the culture of the Orioles organization has been changed by manager Buck Showalter, backed up by last year’s playoff trip. The players are not panicking. They expect to win every night.
“Every team is going to go through their losses, whether it’s five in a row, six, seven,” right fielder Nick Markakis said. “It doesn’t make a difference. We know that we’re in a tough stretch right now. We’ve got to put it past us. Every team has gone through their troubles, and we’re in ours right now, and we’ve got to fight through it and move on. We’ve got a lot of baseball left.”
But their chances of survival in the still-formidable AL East are slim if their starting pitchers don’t turn things around quickly.
Wei-Yin Chen, arguably the team’s best starter so far, is on the disabled list with an oblique injury. Miguel Gonzalez is on that list, too, though he is scheduled to return to the mound Tuesday night.
The Orioles have shuffled another half dozen starters in and out of the rotation. And mostly, Jake Arrieta, Freddy Garcia, Josh Stinson, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson and, most recently, Jair Jurrjens have served up a smorgasbord of mediocre performances.
Surprisingly, Chris Tillman has been the steadiest starter of late.
The offense has kept the Orioles afloat. They are fourth in baseball with 213 runs and tied for sixth (with the Yankees) with 52 home runs. They have scored 23 runs during this five-game losing streak.
But you can’t count on them to put up five runs every night.
The starters need to pitch well and go deeper in games to ensure that the bullpen, which was one of baseball’s best before Johnson’s recently struggles, isn’t exhausted by August or September.
I’m not ready to say the Orioles are on the brink of another mid-season collapse. Not at all. These aren’t the Orioles of last decade.
But make no mistake, this is a critical series for the Orioles.
“We've got to go out and get after the Yankees,” Jones said. “They're going to come off and get after us. We have to come after them.”