BALTIMORE — The theme of the 2014 season has begun taking shape through the first 68 games as the Orioles stand at 35-33 and 4 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East.
It could be worse.
A 5-5 homestand doesn’t sound too devastating when acknowledging seven of those contests came against the two best teams in the AL, but it feels very underwhelming when the Orioles’ normally-maligned rotation provided nine quality starts against Oakland, Boston, and Toronto. A 5-2 loss on Sunday prevented Baltimore from taking three of four from the first-place Blue Jays despite a fourth straight quality start against an offense entering Sunday ranked second in runs and first in on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) in the league.
No, they didn’t lose any ground to the first-place club in the division and remain firmly in the race in an underwhelming AL East, but the weekend and the homestand could have been better. The Orioles were electing to focus on the positive after Sunday’s loss.
“Not frustrating,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “They’re a good team. We could have gotten swept; we could have swept them. Look at the bright side — we got two out of four. Now, let’s go on the road and start the series off right [Monday] in Tampa.”
The loss came at the hands of Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ, who entered Sunday with a 4.37 ERA after giving up 12 earned runs in his previous three starts. The Orioles were held to a meager 29 runs over these last 10 games, with the high point of frustration coming in the Red Sox series when they allowed just one run total but still couldn’t complete a three-game sweep.
Any offense will go through its peaks and valleys over the course of a 162-game schedule, but the Orioles just haven’t been able to put it together. When they’re clicking offensively, the pitching has gone down the tubes, and the Orioles’ better stretches of pitching have come when the lineup struggles as it did during the second-longest homestand of the year.
Of course, the pitching issues were expected this season, but the Orioles entered Sunday ranked ninth in the AL in runs scored. The offensive inconsistency is that much more frustrating when they enter a rare stretch in which the starting pitching thrives.
“If you go through a little spell and you’re not swinging the bats well, your pitching allows you to stay competitive to that point,” manager Buck Showalter said. “So, it just depends how you want to look at it, but you’d like to have both of them clicking. But we haven’t been able to do that consistently yet.”
The silver lining in Sunday’s loss was the performance of right-hander Chris Tillman, who turned in his second straight quality start after a disastrous one-inning start in Texas on June 4 that had everyone questioning his status in the rotation. Both Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez have disappointed through the first 2 1/2 months of the season, but the rest of the rotation has pitched well recently, including 23-year-old Kevin Gausman after his latest promotion.
Even with others pitching well, the Orioles need Tillman to regain his 2013 All-Star form and can only hope his 13 innings of work during the homestand are steps in the right direction despite the two losses. Against Toronto on Sunday, he allowed three earned runs over seven innings, his longest outing since his complete-game shutout in Kansas City on May 16.
“We’re getting somewhere. Starting to feel like my old self,” said Tillman, who didn’t record any strikeouts or walks against the Blue Jays. “Making better pitches and feeling confident in the ability to make a pitch. Command the strike zone, that’s big. Made some big pitches at times, but also left some balls up.”
The Orioles’ long list of issues and misfortunes have been repeated over and over this year.
Catcher Matt Wieters will visit Dr. James Andrews for a second time on Monday and may officially learn he will need season-ending elbow surgery.
First baseman Chris Davis is on pace to hit roughly half the number of home runs he hit last year and shortstop J.J. Hardy is still looking for his first long ball of the season in the middle of June.
Third baseman Manny Machado has been a mess at the plate and fetched a five-game suspension for his embarrassing bat-throwing incident last weekend.
And Tillman and Jimenez have been the rotation’s worst two pitchers after being identified as the duo to lead the staff back to the postseason. The Orioles entered Sunday ranking 11th in starter ERA and sixth in bullpen ERA in the AL.
Still, the Orioles remain within striking distance and show no evidence of dropping out of the race anytime soon in such an underwhelming division. The problem is they’re not displaying any signs of being on the verge of snapping off an extended winning streak to stake their claim to the top of the division, either.
As we enter the second half of June, the Orioles have offered a vibe similar to last season — three steps forward, two steps back, two steps forward, three steps back.
Decent, but not good enough.
“It’s the game of baseball. Frustration is every day,” Jones said. “But that’s how the cookie crumbles. You can’t dwell on things. If you’re put in the situation, try and succeed. If you don’t, wait for another opportunity.”
Other opportunities will come, but you can’t help but feel the Orioles missed one over these last 10 games.
Yes, it could’ve been worse.
But it could have been better.