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Costly week all but squashes AL East title hopes for Orioles

Posted on 21 September 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — David Ortiz sent one deep into the night and with it went virtually all hope of a division title for the Orioles.

Much of the damage had already been done in the five days leading up to Tuesday’s seventh inning when Kevin Gausman gave up a three-run homer to the Boston designated hitter, turning a one-run deficit into a four-run chasm with the way the Orioles have swung the bats on the current homestand and for much of the second half.

A 21-game winner in Rick Porcello shutting them down on Monday was one thing, but former Baltimore farmhand Eduardo Rodriguez stifled them on Tuesday as Orioles batters expanded the zone and didn’t record a hit until rookie Trey Mancini hit a solo home run with two outs in the fifth inning of his major league debut.

You can question Buck Showalter for not turning to lefty specialist Donnie Hart in that fateful encounter with Ortiz and instead sticking with Gausman, who wasn’t nearly as sharp against the Red Sox on Tuesday as he was in a brilliant eight-inning performance in a 1-0 win at Fenway Park last week. Whether you agreed with the manager’s confidence in his starter or not, the 25-year-old has pitched like an ace over the last six weeks and Hart entered the night with all of 17 major league appearances under his belt, so he wasn’t leaving the second coming of Andrew Miller in the bullpen, either.

Gausman throwing a fourth consecutive fastball instead of trying to bury a split-changeup in a 1-2 count appeared unwise after Ortiz had nearly homered on a fastball in his previous at bat, but catcher Matt Wieters and the starting pitcher both noted that the 40-year-old slugger had laid off several splits earlier in the game. Of course, it didn’t help that Gausman’s fastball intended for the low-and-away corner rose up and over the outer half of the plate.

Still, these were just details in what’s been the harsh truth for the Orioles since coming off their best road trip of the season. With the chance for an American League East title still sitting right there in their return to Oriole Park at Camden Yards last Thursday, Showalter’s club hasn’t risen to the occasion.

Facing the last-place Tampa Bay Rays, the Orioles settled for an underwhelming four-game split. Meanwhile, the Red Sox took four straight from the New York Yankees to increase their lead over Baltimore in the division from one game to three by the conclusion of the weekend.

And knowing they needed to take three out of four from Boston to keep themselves in good position to still win the AL East with nine more games remaining after that, the Orioles have scored a total of four runs over the first two games of the series — both 5-2 losses. An offense once among the best in baseball has scored two runs in each of its last four games, losing three of them.

Now a season-worst five games out of first place with 11 to play, the Orioles’ remote chance of winning the division would be to take the final two games of the Boston series and play lights out the rest of the way while hoping the Red Sox stub their toe substantially. At this point, securing a wild card isn’t a sure thing, either, with Toronto now a game ahead for the first spot and Detroit closing the gap to just 1 1/2 games for the second berth currently held by the Orioles.

Even with their division hopes all but gone, the Orioles can still rebound and have managed to do so  several times after rough stretches in the second half despite a disappointing 31-33 mark since the All-Star break. But the last week illustrates how the Orioles haven’t been able to extend the good times like they did in the first half when they strung together three different seven-game winning streaks.

You thought a 6-3 road trip including critical series wins over Detroit and Boston might have been the springboard for the Orioles to retake the division lead, but they have instead drifted in the wrong direction while the Red Sox have reeled off six straight victories since Gausman’s masterpiece last Wednesday night.

A 2-4 start to the final homestand of the season clearly isn’t what the Orioles had in mind, especially after thriving at Camden Yards for most of the season. There’s still time to recover to maintain their grip on a postseason spot, but their hopes for anything better than a wild card have been all but crushed in the matter of six days.

In a costly week, the Orioles just haven’t been good enough while the Red Sox have emerged as the class of the AL East.

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Time running out for Orioles bats to heat up again

Posted on 20 September 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles knew it would be difficult against Cy Young Award candidate Rick Porcello on Monday, but there’s nothing easy about playing in a pennant race, especially against a Boston lineup that’s the best in baseball.

That especially holds true when you’re waiting for a once-explosive offense of your own to finally heat up again. Baltimore has hung a crooked number on the board every now and then since the All-Star break, but the offensive consistency that propelled them to first place for the better part of four months in spite of shoddy starting pitching has disappeared.

Taking nothing away from Porcello’s impressive 89-pitch complete game, the Orioles scored fewer than four runs for the 33rd time in 63 games since the break on Monday. In contrast, they scored three or fewer runs only 31 times in 87 games in the first half.

That’s simply not good enough for a club that’s designed to score plenty of runs.

After averaging just under 5.1 runs per game in the first half, the offense is roughly a run worse since the break at just over 4.1 per contest. The starting pitching will likely be remembered as the Achilles heel of the 2016 Orioles, but the rotation ERA has improved from a hideous 5.15 before the break to a more acceptable 4.51 in the second half.

Yes, the home runs have still been there, but everything else from the first half — the doubles, the high on-base percentage, a few more walks — has dried up to anemic levels. Since the All-Star break, the Orioles rank first in home runs, but they’re 10th in runs, last in doubles, last in batting average, and last in on-base percentage in the American League.

Allowing five runs to the Red Sox on Monday wasn’t ideal, but you better be ready to score when playing a lineup that’s plated a whopping 5.6 per game this season. The Orioles’ AL East title hopes are circling the drain barring three straight wins to conclude the current series, but the offense needs to get on a roll to not only secure a wild card but to try to make some noise in October.

To be fair, the Boston offense hasn’t had an equal all year — the Red Sox have outscored every other AL club by at least 100 runs in 2016 — but the Orioles were at least worthy of being mentioned in the same breath in the first half.

Unfortunately, that feels like a long time ago for Buck Showalter’s club as Boston has begun pulling away.

Bundy dilemma

Monday marked the fourth time in Dylan Bundy’s last seven starts that the right-hander has allowed five earned runs as he took the loss in the 5-2 final.

His 6.62 ERA over his last 34 innings has led many to wonder if he’s tired after eclipsing the 100-inning mark for the first time since his first full professional season in 2012. You can certainly argue that the Orioles are overdoing it with Bundy, but what passes as conventional wisdom in the baseball industry is hardly exact science when it comes to taking care of pitchers’ arms.

The stress of pitching in a pennant race in the major leagues definitely changes the dynamics, but the Orioles originally intended to have Bundy throw around 100 innings in the minor leagues last year before a shoulder injury derailed his season. Does that setback automatically lead to a plan for him to throw even fewer frames a year later, or do you just need to let him go and see what you have at some point?

Bundy again said after Monday’s game that he feels good physically, and it’s worth noting that his average fastball velocity has been up over his last three starts compared to the lull he went through over five starts starting in mid-August. However, his command has suffered in recent outings as he’s walked 19 batters over his last 29 2/3 innings.

On Monday, he struggled with the feel for his curveball, causing him to shy away from using it and making him too predictable with only the fastball-changeup combination. That was evident when David Ortiz appeared to sit on a changeup and hit a decently-located one for a home run in the fifth.

Yes, Bundy might be tired as the Orioles continue to push him further than anyone would have predicted, but he could just be experiencing the typical struggles of a 23-year-old pitcher with limited experience in the majors.

Other side of attendance question

No matter who’s at fault, the Orioles drawing an announced crowd of just 18,456 for the opener of the biggest series of the year is a shame and not a good look.

It’s easy to blame the fan base — plenty of people are already doing that — but many reasons for the decline in attendance have already been discussed, ranging from the tardiness in sending out season-ticket invoices and a substantial price increase to the elimination of cheaper deals such as Tuesday bargain nights for upper-reserve seats. Anyone who expected a different story for this week’s games hasn’t paid attention to the weeknight attendance woes for even the most intriguing opponents throughout the season.

But what has the organization — not the club on the field, but the business and marketing side — done to try to pack Camden Yards for weeknight games when it was apparent over the summer that this problem wasn’t going away? Where are the weeknight promotions such as discounted tickets, concession specials, or a few more giveaways that have become all but exclusive to weekend games?

If a restaurant with good food is struggling to attract patrons during the week, does management simply stomp their feet and continue to ask why no one is coming there to eat or do they try to do something about it in the form of specials and attractive deals?

Yes, winning should be enough — no one is arguing that this is the best fan base in baseball — but you have to be prepared to try to find other ways to compel people to come to the ballpark on weeknights, especially when they can watch the games on high-definition TV at home every night. If not, maybe you just don’t care all that much to have more people in the ballpark for such important games.

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Gausman shines like an ace in high-stakes win for Orioles

Posted on 15 September 2016 by Luke Jones

A talented young pitcher rarely becomes an ace overnight.

It’s often an organic process including some bumps along the road and requiring patience.

The Orioles and their fans have waited a couple years for Kevin Gausman to take that step from solid starting pitcher to something special. For the better part of the last six weeks, he had pitched a lot like a No. 1 starter, but the eighth inning of Wednesday night’s 1-0 win over Boston sure felt like the “aha” moment of his young career.

Having already thrown 104 pitches over seven superb innings, the right-hander returned to the Fenway Park mound and was a batter away from facing the top of the order for a fourth time. Manager Buck Showalter’s decision to send the 25-year-old back out there against the best lineup in baseball in a one-run game appeared to be debatable — at least on paper.

It really wasn’t as Gausman pitched a 1-2-3 eighth.

His 120th and final pitch of the night was his second fastest at 98.5 miles per hour as Xander Bogaerts fouled out to retire the side. It came after he’d touched 98.8 just three pitches earlier.

Talk about saving your best for last in a game where the stakes couldn’t have been much higher in mid-September. It was the stuff of top-of-the-rotation starters, frankly.

We’ve been so conditioned that even when the Orioles receive a good outing from their maligned rotation, you’re waiting for that moment to hand it over to a bullpen that’s been the backbone of their success out of necessity over the last five years. But after watching Gausman shut down an imposing Red Sox lineup all night, there was no one else you wanted pitching in that tight game other than All-Star closer Zach Britton and even that might have been an interesting debate had the starter’s pitch count been lower after eight innings.

He was that good.

His fastball command was impeccable as he threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 29 hitters he faced, something that’s been a challenge for him this year. He effectively threw his split-changeup and once again mixed in an improved breaking ball, the pitch that’s held him back for most of his career. Boston squared up a couple balls early in the game, but the 2012 first-round pick got stronger and induced mostly weak contact as the game continued.

Since a disastrous July 29 outing in Toronto in which he allowed three home runs to the first five hitters of the game and gave up six runs over three innings, Gausman has pitched to a 2.06 ERA over nine starts covering 56 2/3 innings. He’s struck out 62 batters and allowed just four home runs over that stretch.

He lowered his season ERA to 3.43 in winning his fifth straight decision.

The surge has come at a time when the Orioles needed it most with veteran starter Chris Tillman missing most of the last month with a shoulder injury.

Wednesday wasn’t a playoff game, but it sure felt like October baseball with Gausman pitching on the road like an ace against a right-handed-heavy lineup that hit him hard twice earlier this year. It was the best and most important start of his career and the exclamation point on a strong 6-3 road trip that moved the Orioles to just one game out of first place in the American League East as they return to Camden Yards to begin an 11-game homestand on Thursday.

We’ll see how the final 17 games of the regular season play out in a tremendous division race.

But Wednesday was one hell of a statement from the Orioles.

And perhaps the clearest signal yet of an ace having finally arrived.

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It’s now or never for road-challenged Orioles

Posted on 05 September 2016 by Luke Jones

The Orioles have one winning road trip all season.

One.

It was an abbreviated two-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins in mid-May that was sandwiched between two longer homestands. In other words, that’s not a real road trip in the way we typically view a multi-city one lasting the better part of a week or two.

Buck Showalter’s club has avoided disastrous road trips of the 1-9 or 2-8 variety, but a 29-37 mark away from Oriole Park at Camden Yards speaks for itself. While holding the third-best home record in the American League this season, the Orioles have been a bad team on the road.

Entering Labor Day three games behind first-place Toronto in the AL East and tied with Detroit for the second wild-card spot, Baltimore is aware of what’s ahead. A nine-game, three-city road trip precedes the final 11-game homestand of the year and then six more on the road to conclude the regular season.

It’s now or never.

“We’ve got to win games. It’s real simple,” Showalter said. “We have to win games, regardless of how we get there. I don’t care how it looks or how it happens, but we need to have more runs than them after nine innings or 10 or 11 or 12 or so on. It’s a pretty simple equation right now.”

But that been the equation all year on the road. Camden Yards is certainly a ballpark suited for an Orioles lineup constructed to win via the long ball, but that doesn’t fully explain the chasm between home and road performance this season.

At home, the Orioles have hit .266 with a .331 on-base percentage and a .470 slugging percentage. They’ve batted .254 with a .309 OBP and a .431 slugging percentage on the road.

The difference in pitching is even more dramatic with Baltimore pitching to a respectable 3.94 ERA at home compared to an alarming 4.93 away mark. If the Orioles can pitch effectively at hitter-friendly Camden Yards, there’s just no explaining being a full run worse on the road.

Overall, the Orioles aren’t as good as their sparkling 45-25 home record, but they’re also not the poor quality of a 91-loss team as their road record would suggest. They have lost nine of their last 15 home games, so the Orioles can only hope that the worm finally turns on the road.

They need it to.

After three-game sets at Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Boston, the Orioles will return to Baltimore on Sept. 15 with a good idea of where they stand in the playoff picture. If they follow their season-long road profile with no better than a 4-5 trip, the chances of a division title would likely be bleak and they’d be scratching and crawling the rest of the way to secure a wild card. A good road trip — say 6-3 or better — keeps them within striking distance of the division with games remaining against both the Red Sox and the Blue Jays in the final two weeks.

“One at a time,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “That’s got to be the mentality this time of year. You can’t win them all at once; you’ve got to go one at a time.”

That sounds good, but the Orioles haven’t been able to consistently stack wins on the road all year.

It’s now or never.

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Out-of-sync Orioles in danger of falling out of AL East race

Posted on 01 September 2016 by Luke Jones

You couldn’t help but cringe at the pitching matchups as the Orioles returned home to begin a critical three-game set with Toronto on Monday.

Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Yovani Gallardo going up against the Blue Jays’ three best starters? Even the most optimistic of Baltimore fans feared it could get ugly at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Instead, the embattled trio turned in three quality starts against the second-highest scoring offense in the American League. And the Orioles still lost two of three to the division leader to fall four games back in the AL East.

The term “must-win” is one of the most overused descriptors in sports, but that series win was one that Buck Showalter’s club surely wanted to have, especially playing at home where the Orioles have looked quite mortal over the last few weeks. It’s just been that kind of a second half as Baltimore fell into a tie with Detroit for the final wild card spot on Wednesday.

Trying to hold on, but seemingly losing their grip bit by bit as the summer transitions into fall. Out of sync and trying to avoid falling out of a tough division race in which Toronto and Boston aren’t going anywhere. A wild-card spot that appeared likely now looks in doubt with the likes of Detroit, Houston, and Kansas City surging.

The pitching remains the biggest concern — even two of the top three bullpen arms surrendered runs in Wednesday’s 5-3 loss — but an offense that thrived in the first half has been among the worst in the league since the All-Star break. Sure, the Orioles still hit home runs — they tied the major league record for long balls in August with 55 after hitting a record 56 in June — but they’ve all but stopped doing anything else offensively.

Remember how Baltimore ranked third in the AL with a .333 on-base percentage in the first half? Those more disciplined at-bats and the willingness to draw a few more walks have evaporated with the Orioles ranking last in the AL with a .293 OBP in the 46 games since then. They rank 12th in runs scored since the break despite continuing to lead the league in home runs, illustrating how much more dependent on long balls they’ve become to score runs as the season has progressed.

We knew all along that the Orioles lineup was constructed to win with the home run, but the all-or-nothing outcomes are as extreme as ever. Consider Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo, who have combined to hit 22 home runs and bat .180 in 305 at-bats since the break. They haven’t been alone in the second-half struggles, but you just aren’t going to consistently score runs with that kind of production from your No. 4 and No. 5 hitters.

Because the offense produced at such a high level over the first half of the season, it’s still reasonable to think — at least hope? — a prolonged hot streak could be right around the corner.

But then we come back to the pitching, which ranks 13th among 15 AL clubs. Other than the first few weeks after the All-Star break when the rotation performed at a respectable level — and the offense failed to capitalize — you just can’t trust this starting pitching, especially with Chris Tillman unlikely to return before the middle of September. The bullpen continues to wilt without Darren O’Day, who is just now working out the final remnants of discomfort in his right shoulder.

The Orioles will say they were encouraged by the way Miley, Jimenez, and Gallardo pitched against the Blue Jays this week, but that kind of success feels more like an aberration than a breakthrough for the final month.

Despite exceeding expectations for most of the season, this club just isn’t firing on all cylinders and hasn’t been for quite some time. When the rotation does offer a stretch of decent outings, the offense fails to do its job. When the bats are lively, the pitching struggles to even be competitive. Or, neither phase performs well and it gets downright ugly.

On Wednesday, executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette added Drew Stubbs and Michael Bourn, veterans who can help the abysmal outfield defense late in games and add some speed off the bench. Maybe these spare parts will help spark a struggling club, but the Orioles simply look like a team struggling to keep their heads above water these days.

The losing spells have been more frequent while the good times have been fleeting. In the first four months of the season, the Orioles had three seven-game winning streaks, two five-game winning streaks, and a four-game winning streak. In August, they won as many as three in a row just once while dropping three straight on three separate occasions.

Going just 21-25 since the All-Star break, the Orioles have been trying to hold on, but they’ll need to do more than that in September to secure their third trip to the postseason in the last five years.

You should never count out the Orioles under Showalter with so much baseball left to play, but an increasingly one-dimensional offense, a poor starting rotation, and a bullpen short on trustworthy arms aren’t inspiring confidence in the final month of the season.

It’s just not looking good.

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Orioles add outfield depth by claiming veteran Stubbs

Posted on 31 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — Trying to improve their depth and defense in the outfield, the Orioles claimed veteran outfielder Drew Stubbs off waivers from the Texas Rangers on Wednesday.

With Adam Jones recently sidelined with a left hamstring injury, Baltimore has been short in the outfield and primarily using corner outfielder Nolan Reimold in center. Jones is expected to return to the lineup by the weekend, but the Orioles envision the 31-year-old Stubbs filling a void as a late-inning defensive replacement and reserve outfielder that hasn’t really been filled since Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard suffered a thumb injury in late July.

In 67 plate appearances with the Atlanta Braves and the Rangers this season, Stubbs is hitting .259 with three home runs, six RBIs, and a .757 on-base plus slugging percentage. He is a career .244 hitter with a .710 OPS over eight major league seasons.

Capable of playing all three outfield spots, Stubbs has mostly played in center during his career, giving the Orioles a backup for Jones in the final month of the season. The right-handed hitter has struggled to hold down a steady job over the last two seasons, but he hit 15 home runs in a season as recently as 2014 and reached double digits in stolen bases every year from 2009-2014, which provides manager Buck Showalter with a little speed off the bench.

To make room on their 40-man roster, the Orioles designated newly-acquired left-handed relief pitcher Kyle Lobstein for assignment with the hope that he clears waivers and remains in the organization. Baltimore acquired the 27-year-old Lobstein from Pittsburgh in exchange for minor-league lefty Zach Phillips earlier in the day.

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Desperate for relief, Orioles bring back right-hander Hunter

Posted on 28 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Desperate to stop the bleeding in a bullpen that’s been unable to support already-poor starting pitching, the Orioles brought back right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter before Sunday’s finale with the New York Yankees.

Hunter, 30, was released by Cleveland last week and rejoins the club with which he spent five seasons. The Orioles traded Hunter to the Chicago Cubs at the trade deadline last year in a cost-cutting move after he had pitched to a 3.63 ERA in 44 2/3 innings with Baltimore in 2015. Despite being maligned for giving up the long ball and failing in his brief stint as a closer at the start of the 2014 campaign, Hunter posted an effective 2.88 ERA in a combined 147 relief innings in 2013 and 2014.

Signed to a one-year, $2 million contract with the Indians this offseason, Hunter posted a 3.74 ERA in 21 2/3 innings in the first half before suffering a non-displaced fracture in his back when he slipped on some steps carrying his son during the All-Star break. He had made six minor-league rehab appearances this month before the Indians released him.

Of course, the Orioles’ struggles in long and middle relief are no secret as their bullpen ERA has risen to 3.75 to rank seventh in the American League after being at or near the top all season. Right-handed pitcher Oliver Drake was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk to join Hunter as the newest additions to a carousel bullpen unable to bridge the gap to 2016 All-Star relievers Brad Brach and Zach Britton at the back end.

Of course, a starting rotation ranking 14th in the AL with a 5.01 ERA hasn’t helped matters at all.

To make room for Hunter and Drake, the Orioles designated left-handed pitcher T.J. McFarland and outfielder Julio Borbon for assignment.

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Tillman goes to DL after more shoulder concerns

Posted on 23 August 2016 by Luke Jones

(Updated: Wednesday 4:15 p.m)

BALTIMORE — Coming off his worst start of the season and experiencing more right shoulder discomfort during his latest bullpen session, Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday.

Manager Buck Showalter said before Tuesday’s 8-1 win over Washington that the right-hander’s work day hadn’t gone well and that his next scheduled start against the Nationals was in jeopardy. On Saturday, the right-hander allowed six earned runs and walked five over a season-low two innings, but he said after the game that his shoulder was fine and told the training staff the following morning that it felt better than it usually does the day after a start.

Tillman received a cortisone injection after being examined by Dr. Leigh Ann Curl at Camden Yards. Showalter confirmed after the game that the 28-year-old would land on the DL in hopes that the rest will allow him to return at the end of the minimum 15-day period.

“I would have liked a little better results or response from the last outing, but it just didn’t respond very well,” Tillman said. ” We’re trying to be safe and get this thing in the rear-view mirror. That way, I’m not fighting it all year. I think it’s probably the best way to go about it.”

His last start was pushed back three days due to shoulder soreness that Tillman said he first experienced the morning after his Aug. 11 outing in Oakland.

Entering Tuesday ranked 12th in the American League with a 4.97 rotation ERA, the Orioles can hardly afford to lose their best starting pitcher in the midst of a tight division race with Toronto and Boston. Tillman is 15-5 with a 3.76 ERA in 26 starts covering 153 innings this season.

The Orioles recalled right-hander Mike Wright to replace Tillman on the 25-man roster and announced that right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez would start on Thursday.

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Long, painful week for Orioles ends with no relief

Posted on 22 August 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — The Orioles had a chance to stop the bleeding on Sunday after a difficult 1-4 start to an eight-game homestand.

Waiting out a rain delay of more than four hours on the heels of two of their worst losses of the season, the Orioles watched first-place Toronto squander another late lead in a loss at Cleveland. Second-place Boston fell hard in Detroit. Even Seattle — who entered the day one game behind Baltimore for the second wild-card spot — blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning to lose to lowly Milwaukee.

A victory in the finale of the four-game set with Houston would have shrunk the Orioles’ American League East deficit to just 1 1/2 games and increased their lead over the Mariners. It wasn’t a must-win game, but it represented a valuable opportunity to salvage a four-game split, exhale, and regroup after allowing an unseemly 27 runs to the Astros the previous two nights.

Yovani Gallardo gave the Orioles exactly what they needed after poor performances by Wade Miley, Chris Tillman, and a host of long relievers had decimated the bullpen to the point that infielder Ryan Flaherty pitched the ninth inning of Saturday’s loss. Enduring two different rain delays, Gallardo allowed one run over the first four innings on Sunday.

Then, the fifth came.

Two-time Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado bobbled a chopper off the bat of Teoscar Hernandez for an error to begin the inning. Four batters later, a Carlos Correa line drive to right-center went off the glove of right fielder Chris Davis for a two-run double that would give the Astros a 4-1 lead. Manager Buck Showalter said after the game that his normal first baseman had lost the ball in the lights, but the two defensive miscues led to three runs for Houston.

The bottom of the fifth wasn’t much better as Adam Jones singled home Nolan Reimold to make it a 4-2 deficit, but the center fielder overslid second base as he advanced on the throw home and was then tagged out, ending the inning and adding a baserunning mistake to the poor defense in the top half of frame.

Taking nothing away from a strong eight-inning performance by 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, the Orioles cost themselves dearly in that fateful inning. Of course, it didn’t help that the bats largely fell silent again after the Baltimore pitching hadn’t given them much of a chance on Friday or Saturday.

Gallardo deserved better over his seven solid innings of work, but the Orioles have done whatever it takes to lose on this current homestand. In a two-game sweep against Boston, little went right across the board. After a 13-5 blowout victory over the Astros in the series opener, the Orioles made major league history Friday night by homering four times before recording a single out and amazingly lost by seven as Miley and the bullpen surrendered a combined 15 runs.

Despite falling to just 11 games over .500 for the first time since June 22, the math tells you the Orioles are still in fine shape and only a modest winning streak away from potentially being back in first place. But it doesn’t feel that way with a maddeningly inconsistent offense, a shorthanded bullpen, and a starting rotation reverting to its first-half form after showing some improvement since the All-Star break.

Since a four-game winning streak in which they swept Cleveland and won the opener of a series with Colorado to improve to an AL-best 58-40 on July 25, the Orioles have gone 9-16 and have been passed by both the Blue Jays and the Red Sox in the division.

It isn’t panic time yet, but losing the final three games against Houston — a team that came to Baltimore having lost four in a row and 13 of its previous 19 — felt alarmingly reminiscent of last year’s four-game home sweep to Minnesota that led to a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games ending any real chance of making the postseason. Of course, the Orioles are in better position now than last year at that point, but their 2016 season appears to be at a crossroads.

The offense has slumped for the better part of six weeks now, once again too dependent on the home run. Dating back to the last West Coast trip, the last six hits apiece from Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo have all been homers, illustrating the largely all-or-nothing performance from the lineup.

The health of No. 1 starter Chris Tillman remains in question despite him saying his shoulder felt fine after his worst start of the season on Saturday. Acquired at the deadline to fortify the rotation, Miley is sporting a 9.53 ERA in his four starts with the Orioles.

The bullpen is once again without Darren O’Day, who doesn’t appear particularly close to returning from a strained rotator cuff. Closer Zach Britton has been nothing short of brilliant all year, but getting to him is becoming increasingly difficult with fellow All-Star reliever Brad Brach struggling since the break.

The Orioles had been nearly invincible at Camden Yards this season in winning 70 percent of their games there, but they no longer have the best home mark in the majors after dropping six of their last seven in Baltimore.

No, things aren’t always as bad as they seem when a team is struggling like the Orioles are right now. The good news is that they didn’t lose any ground Sunday with their competitors all falling.

But instead of stopping the bleeding and starting to reverse their recent fortunes, the wound grew deeper in another frustrating loss.

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Home runs continue to stunt Gausman’s success

Posted on 19 August 2016 by Luke Jones

Orioles starting pitcher Kevin Gausman is having a strange season in 2016.

He’s pitched better than his 4-10 record indicates as he entered Thursday’s start having the fourth-worst run support among qualified American League starters. His 4.11 ERA has still made him Baltimore’s No. 2 starter behind Chris Tillman, but he hasn’t taken the major step forward that many hoped to see.

It hasn’t been all bad for Gausman, who is striking out a career-best 9.1 batters per nine innings as a starter to rank 14th among qualified major league pitchers. Despite walking a career-high six in San Francisco last weekend, the 25-year-old has issued a very reasonable 2.6 free passes per nine innings in 2016.

So, what’s been the problem beyond the shoddy run support?

The right-hander just hasn’t been able to keep it in the ballpark.

After giving up a pair of late home runs against Houston to soil what was shaping up to be a strong outing in Thursday’s 13-5 win, Gausman has allowed 1.63 homers per nine innings this season, the eighth-worst mark among qualified starters in the majors. Since giving up just three long balls in his first 36 2/3 innings of the season, Gausman has surrendered 20 over his last 90 1/3 innings. You can’t blame it on pitching at Camden Yards, either, as 15 of the 23 he’s allowed in 2016 have come on the road.

After giving up only 0.6 homers per nine innings in 20 starts in 2014, Gausman’s home run rate sits at 1.5 per nine over the last two years, the biggest statistical factor that has kept his ERA above 4.00. Of the 61 runs (earned and unearned) allowed by Gausman this year, 32 have scored via the home run. In contrast, just 24 of the 58 runs allowed by Tillman — another pitcher prone to giving up home runs — have scored on round-trippers.

Fans often question Gausman’s aggressiveness — particularly on the road — but that doesn’t paint the entire picture.

Fifteen of the 23 home runs in 2016 have come against Gausman’s fastball, but the issue isn’t really with that pitch itself. He’s allowed one long ball per 18.6 plate appearances against right-handed hitters but just one per 35 plate appearances against lefties.

His split-changeup has made him very effective against left-handed bats, but his breaking ball — whether you label it a slider, a curve, or a “slurve” — designed to help against right-handers continues to be a below-average pitch. Opponents are hitting .351 with four home runs and six doubles against the 293 sliders he’s thrown in 2016, according to FanGraphs. In contrast, opponents are hitting .216 with four homers and five doubles on the 462 splitters he’s thrown.

Gausman has thrown his breaking ball a career-high 13.1 percent of the time in 2016 as he continues to try to develop it as more than just a “show-me” pitch, but he remains too much of a fastball-dependent pitcher against right-handers. This unsurprisingly makes him more vulnerable to the long ball if his fastball command within the strike zone isn’t superb. Even with the great velocity, right-handed hitters generally know he’s going to lean on the fastball in big moments and aren’t afraid of his breaking ball.

The expectations have been high for Gausman since he was selected with the fourth overall pick of the 2012 draft. The Orioles and their fans understandably want to see more, but his 3.98 ERA over the last three seasons has still made him a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

Without Gausman developing a pitch to better defend himself against the right-handed hitters who are hitting .290 with an .859 on-base plus slugging percentage against him in 2016, it’s difficult envisioning him being dramatically better than what he’s been to this point in his career. To be clear, that would hardly make him a bust as most highly-touted pitching prospects never become an ace.

It’s just very difficult for a two-pitch pitcher to become a top-of-the-rotation guy.

After 64 career starts in the majors, this might just be who Gausman is.

** J.J. Hardy continues to quietly have a solid season at the plate despite missing nearly seven weeks with a broken foot.

A two-homer night on Thursday doesn’t change the reality that he lacks the same power that he once possessed, but his hard contact rate of 37.5 percent is easily the highest of his career, according to FanGraphs. He isn’t going the other way more often than in the past, but a different approach focused on hitting line drives has prompted him to hit .409 to the opposite field compared to his .248 career mark.

After an abysmal 2015 in which he played with a torn labrum in his left shoulder all season, Hardy needed to bounce back and has done so with a .278 average, seven home runs, 19 doubles, and a .743 OPS.

** Mark Trumbo hit his 35th homer of the season on Thursday to set a new career high.

He is hitting just .156 with a .583 OPS since the All-Star break, but he does have seven home runs over those 32 games. In fact, Trumbo’s last four hits dating back to the final game of the Oakland series on August 11 have all been home runs.

Talk about all or nothing.

** Hyun Soo Kim registered the first four-hit game and first triple of his major league career on Thursday night. He is now hitting .329 with a .406 on-base percentage and a very respectable .449 slugging percentage in 244 plate appearances.

Remember when the Orioles were convinced he couldn’t play in the majors after a poor start in spring training?

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