Too many valleys, not enough peaks for Orioles

July 13, 2015 | Luke Jones

A lot changed in two weeks for the Orioles.

Appearing poised to take off in the American League East after winning 18 of 23 to move into first place on June 28, the Orioles have instead lost 10 of 13 as we take a deep breath at the All-Star break. Falling back to the .500 mark for the first time since June 14, they’re once again facing many of the same doubts that plagued them for the first two months of the 2015 season.

Their impressive June had many convinced they were ready to recapture the success experienced last year when they won the AL East by 12 games, but poor baseball instead returned as the Orioles have gone 3-8 in July and have scored just 32 runs over those games.

Of course, Baltimore remains in the playoff hunt and is only four games behind the first-place New York Yankees, but a look at the schedule tells a simple story of how the first half played out.

Not counting their 18-5 stretch last month, the Orioles have won as many as three in a row only one other time all season. It doesn’t take a mathematician to understand it’s difficult to climb far from .500 when you’re rarely stacking victories.

In contrast, the Orioles experienced two different five-game losing streaks and dropped eight of 11 in the first half of May in addition to their current stretch that’s lowered them from the top of the division to third place. Strictly looking in that context, are the Orioles fortunate to hold a .500 record at this point?

A plus-39 run differential indicates they’ve played to some bad luck, but too many valleys and not enough peaks have left the Orioles middling instead of thriving in their attempt to repeat as division champions.

Much focus has fallen on a schizophrenic offense that was terrific in April and June and terrible in May and the first half of July, but the biggest concern for the second half should be a starting rotation ranking 10th in the AL with a 4.20 ERA. Beyond Wei-Yin Chen and the rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez, the Baltimore rotation has struggled with Chris Tillman and Bud Norris — the latter already being sent to the bullpen — sporting ERAs well above 5.00 and Miguel Gonzalez not being the same since returning from the disabled list last month.

The wild card could be the 24-year-old Kevin Gausman, but the Orioles need better from the rest of the rotation as it was a 2.98 starter ERA in the second half last year that was the biggest factor in Buck Showalter’s club running away with the division. They finished fifth in the AL in starter ERA with a 3.61 mark in 2014.

The next couple weeks will be critical for executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette as he tries to find a way to improve the current club. The return of talented second baseman Jonathan Schoop is another reason for optimism as the Orioles are healthier now than they’ve been since early last season, but a steady corner outfielder and another elite bullpen arm to ease the workload of Darren O’Day and Zach Britton should be the top priorities between now and the deadline.

A top starting pitcher would be a major plus, but the Orioles likely lack the inventory to land one that would be a marked upgrade over what they already have in place.

Much like their 10-game West Coast trip to begin the second half last season, a nine-game trip against three clubs sporting .500 records or better — Detroit, New York, and Tampa Bay — starting Friday could set the tone for the remainder of the season. Last July, the Orioles went 6-4 out west against Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle and never looked back.

A lousy 17-26 mark away from Camden Yards this year will understandably make fans brace themselves before the Orioles return home again on July 27. Faltering during this road trip wouldn’t necessarily sink their ship, but it could create a very tough climb over the final two months.

So far in 2015, the Orioles haven’t been able to shift into higher gear like they did a year ago. An AL East lacking any heavyweight remains the biggest positive working in their favor, but it’s fair to wonder if the Orioles are capable of getting to the 89 or 90 wins it will probably take to win the division.

Save for one 3 1/3-week stretch in June, the Orioles haven’t been able to get far without stubbing their toe all season.

Too many valleys, not enough peaks.

And that’s what has them sitting at .500 and looking up in the standings at the All-Star break.