For much of the afternoon on Sunday, it looked to be a lost weekend for the Orioles.
Scoring only one run in Saturday’s narrow loss and being shut out through the first seven innings in the series finale against the Washington Nationals despite a strong out from Jake Arrieta, Baltimore appeared on the verge of dropping a series in which it held Washington to five runs while continuing an anemic offensive stretch over the last nine games.
But just like we’ve seen on numerous occasions this season, the Orioles snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after Matt Wieters crushed a Sean Burnett fastball into the bullpen in the bottom of the eighth. Jim Johnson’s 22nd save gave the Orioles their seventh victory when trailing after seven innings and another improbable win.
Admitting he nearly decided to rest Wieters but deciding against it with Monday’s day off, manager Buck Showalter said it all in describing what was another dramatic finish at Camden Yards. Only he didn’t sound nearly as surprised as anyone else who watched the Orioles go 1-for-33 with runners in scoring position over the last seven games.
“That was fun at the end,” he said unassumingly and with little outward emotion.
The more we watch the Orioles through the first 72 games of the season, the less it seems to make sense. The flaws are apparent in the numbers and with the names Showalter is running out there on a daily basis.
Counting on their offense to help make up for their deficiencies in the starting rotation, the Orioles managed just 17 runs over the last nine games while actually receiving good starting pitching for the most part. Yet, they still found a way to go 4-5 over the stretch.
The lineup struggles to manufacture runs and relies too heavily on the home run — four of their five runs over the three games were scored via the long ball — but how do you really expect the offense to thrive when you see names such as Steve Pearce and Ronny Paulino and Steve Tolleson filling spots in Showalter’s order while Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold have been sidelined by injuries?
Defensively, the Orioles leave plenty to be desired, with players out of position and certain spots such as third base seemingly without an answer. Center fielder Adam Jones knows it better than anyone as he looks to his left and right and sees converted infielders manning those spots on most nights.
The starting rotation has struggled once you get past Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, desperately needing more consistency from Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter. But Sunday was an encouraging sign as Arrieta continued his resurgence after looking like he was on the fast track to Triple-A Norfolk just two weeks ago. He’s now given up just six earned runs in his last three starts covering 20 innings (2.70 earned run average), looking more like the pitcher who dominated in an Opening Day victory than the one looking completely lost earlier this month.
The bullpen has remained the foundation of the Orioles’ success, and it pitched three more scoreless innings on Sunday to keep the club in the game after Arrieta failed to receive any support during his six strong innings of work. Johnson receives the notoriety at the back end, but Showalter trusts his entire bullpen — even Kevin Gregg hasn’t been as bad as fans want to admit — to pitch meaningful innings when the situation calls for any given name.
While certainly better than what we’ve seen in recent years, those parts don’t sound like they add up to a team that’s 10 games above .500 entering the final week of June.
The common phrase used in recent weeks has been the Orioles are “running on fumes” with everyone simply waiting for a swoon to begin, whether it was losing seven of eight right around Memorial Day or a humbling sweep against the New York Mets last week.
But the Orioles are never too high or too low, a dramatic difference from past seasons. Players downplayed the offensive struggles throughout the weekend — almost to the point of sounding cavalier about it — but were businesslike in reacting to Sunday’s dramatic win. Most credit goes to the players’ performance on the field, but Showalter has truly changed the culture after years of everyone in town talking about it needing to change.
“There was a good vibe in our dugout today,” Showalter said. “You could tell how much this game meant to them, and it was frustrating for them because we were so close a few times. It’s setting the table, like in pool, and you just can’t make the shot sometimes.”
Wieters did in the eighth, sending the Orioles to their 41st win of the season. It doesn’t mean the organization is there yet by any means, but it’s easy to forget the club didn’t collect its 41st win of the 2010 season until Aug. 13 — 10 days into the Showalter era. Yes, the standard has been incredibly low for 14 years, but that doesn’t make what the current club is doing any less encouraging.
The Orioles manager is the first to tell you he isn’t a magician. The change and success haven’t come overnight as last year showed us, but it’s time to stop dismissing what they’ve been able to accomplish over the first three months of the season.
Have they been lucky? Maybe, but does it really matter?
It’s a club with obvious flaws that may ultimately prevent it from playing October baseball, but every improbable win and unexplained success now makes it easier to hang around in August and September.
More than anything, it’s exactly how Showalter described Sunday’s game.
It’s been fun.