Unconventional turns ugly for Orioles’ second-half start

July 14, 2012 | Luke Jones

Friday night looked like a good opportunity for the Orioles to get back on track to begin the second half of their season.

Staff ace Jason Hammel was taking the hill against Detroit’s Doug Fister, who entered the night having surrendered 18 earned runs in his last 14 1/3 innings of work for the Tigers.

Right fielder Nick Markakis was returning to the lineup for the first time since late May, assuming the leadoff spot for the first time in his big-league career in an effort to boost the club’s abysmal .246 on-base percentage in the top spot this season. Regaining one of its best hitters looked like the perfect tonic for an offense that scored only 61 runs in its final 22 games before the All-Star break.

His return moved Chris Davis to left field for the first time in the major leagues, giving the club its optimal offense as the roster is presently constructed.

It looked unconventional, but maybe that was exactly what the Orioles needed to climb out of a 6-13 rut and start the second half on a high note.

Instead, the recent stretch turned even uglier with the sight of Hammel walking off the field with a right knee injury in the top of the fourth inning. The 29-year-old has dealt with soreness in that same knee for much of the season, but concern was apparent following the game in the quietest clubhouse reporters had witnessed all season.

“It took a little air out of the game,” said manager Buck Showalter while trying to remain optimistic. “One of our better pitchers had to leave early on. We had gotten back into it at 2-1 and it looked like he was going to settle in and keep us in the game.”

The Orioles (45-41) lost 7-2 to fall to just four games above the .500 mark for the first time since April 27, but a Saturday MRI on Hammel’s right knee will tell far more about the club’s second-half fate than a series-opening loss to the Tigers. Already having demoted three-fifths of the starting rotation to Triple-A Norfolk prior to the break, losing Hammel for an extended period would be a crippling blow to a club already desperate to add quality starting pitching.

Offensively, Baltimore looked as anemic as it did in the final month of the first half, making Fister look like an ace over seven innings in which he allowed three hits and struck out eight. No player exemplifies the Orioles’ struggles at the plate more than shortstop J.J. Hardy, who is now hitless in his last 23 at-bats and 18-for-130 (a .129 average) since June 6.

But Hardy is just one of many failing to get the job done at the plate.

“You want to start off [the second half] with some momentum,” Davis said. “Being at home, these are games we have to win. If we want to be serious about being a playoff team, we’ve got to win games at home, especially when we have our ace on the mound. Obviously, he left early on, but we’ve got to do a better job scoring runs.”

While Showalter waits for his offense to show signs of life — hopefully in a hurry — the Orioles will be on pins and needles waiting to hear Hammel’s fate. The pitcher did not have swelling in the knee after exiting and said through a team official he didn’t hear a pop or sound suggesting a tear when he injured himself delivering a 1-2 pitch to Brennan Boesch.

The Orioles are still saying the right things about refraining from panic, but human nature suggests it’s an impossibility at this point.

“Because of the way [Hammel’s] performed, I don’t want to throw dirt over him right now,” Showalter said. “We’re hoping that we hear something good. Our trainers and medical people have done a great job, along with Hamm. I see all the work he does between starts to keep it under control, and I’ll trust him. We’ll make a good decision, probably in the next day or so.”

Hearing Showalter speak of the air coming out of the game after Hammel’s injury and following it up with a metaphor about not wanting to throw dirt on a coffin tells you the struggles and frustration are even weighing on his mind at this point. His expressed optimism wasn’t very convincing and understandably so.

Are the Orioles now circling the drain with the potential loss of their best starting pitcher on top of the rotation struggles they were already experiencing?

Maybe not, but it’s sure feeling that way.

The Orioles need to reverse their fortunes in a hurry, but you wonder how they can if faced with a potential loss as crushing as this.