BALTIMORE — Even after a 5-3 loss to the New York Yankees on Sunday that snapped a season-high six-game winning streak, there’s a lot to like about the Orioles these days.
At 31-31 with 100 games remaining in the 2015 season, they’re just a game behind their record at this point in 2014 before that club surged in the second half of the season to win 96 games and the American League East title. When Baltimore was six games below .500 less than two weeks ago, players said they weren’t panicking, but even the most positive fans couldn’t help but fear the young season could be spiraling out of control.
Since three straight losses in Houston to start the month, the Orioles have won eight of 10, but manager Buck Showalter never assumed it was just a matter of time before snapping out of the funk. He won’t conclude that everything is just fine moving forward, either.
“It’s never too early to play better baseball,” said Showalter about whether he was worried about the 23-29 start. “It’s not one of those things where you say, ‘It’s just one of those things you’ve got to go through.’ I don’t live in that world. Let’s correct it today, yesterday.”
Those recent corrections have essentially rebooted the season for the Orioles as they’ve won as many as they’ve lost as we sit in mid-June. It may no longer be early, but it’s far from being too late with a month to go until the All-Star break.
A dominating bullpen that allowed only one run over 24 1/3 innings against the Yankees and Boston, superb defense, the return of All-Star catcher Matt Wieters, and an improved offensive attack have been the catalysts for the recent surge, but the Orioles have also received significant contributions from unexpected sources, a familiar theme to the last few seasons of winning baseball in Baltimore. If you had bet at the start of spring training on the oft-injured Nolan Reimold and non-roster invitee Chaz Roe being key cogs in a June hot streak, you probably could have won at least a nickel or two a few months ago.
But contrary to popular belief, Baltimore hasn’t really been firing on all cylinders with the rotation failing to produce a start of at least six innings in eight straight games, making the winning streak even more remarkable. If the bullpen is to continue its run of dominance — a 2.11 ERA in 127 2/3 innings since April 29 — starters need to begin going deeper into games like they did in May, but the Orioles are still enduring the struggles of Chris Tillman and Bud Norris as well as the absence of the injured Miguel Gonzalez.
Rookie Mike Wright was the latest starter with an early exit Sunday as he was lifted from the game after walking the first three hitters of the top of the fifth, which eventually led to three runs and the Yankees taking a 5-3 lead that they never relinquished. It remains unclear whether he will get another start or if the Orioles will turn to the 24-year-old Kevin Gausman, who is primed to come off the 15-day disabled list this coming week.
Recent good karma aside, the Orioles know that consistency is the real key to moving above .500 and in contention in an AL East looking better of late with Tampa Bay continuing to play better-than-expected baseball and Toronto having won 11 straight games with the best offense in the majors by a wide margin.
“I think we’re definitely starting to hit our stride,” said first baseman Chris Davis about taking five of six from Boston and New York to begin the homestand. “That’s big for us to get everybody healthy and get everybody on the field and start playing together. I think that’s what we’ve done the last few games, and we’re just trying to keep the ball rolling.
“We want to be over .500; I think we expect to be over .500. There’s so much emphasis put on the stats and standings and where you are. But right now, the biggest thing for us is to go out there and try to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
The hallmark of Showalter’s winning clubs the last few years has been consistency in regularly winning series and holding their own on the road, the latter being something the Orioles haven’t done so far in 2015 with an 11-18 record away from Camden Yards. The mere fact that the latest six-game winning streak matches the longest of the Showalter era — done two other times since the 59-year-old skipper arrived in 2010 — reflects that success has been more about steady winning and minimizing losing spells rather than roller coaster rides of prosperity or pain.
While the Orioles have excelled in most facets of the game recently, they know there’s still room for improvement — particularly with the rotation of late — if they want to show they’re more like the club we’ve seen over the last 10 games than the inconsistent one on display over the first two months of the season. They have the next 3 1/2 months to prove which one they are.
“There’s no one phase of the game that overpowers it,” Showalter said on Saturday. “You’ve got to be doing a lot of things well. There’s a good crispness to our defense and guys are very alert to try to do things. You know that the teams you play, you’ve got to be on top of your game because there’s a big inning around every corner for them.”
The Orioles were reminded of that the hard way on Sunday, but they still came out of the weekend feeling much better about themselves than they have all season.
Now, the challenge will be keeping the good vibes going in the coming days.