BALTIMORE — On June 11, the Baltimore Orioles were one out away from a win over the Tampa Bay Rays, a win that would have pushed the Orioles’ record to 31-31 and kept them within four games of the American League wild card. The 25,541 fans who rose to their feet at Oriole Park at Camden Yards at that moment, roughly 164 months since the franchise’s last playoff game, had begun to catch glimpses of an old, vaguely familiar vision in the distance: hope.
But then closer Kevin Gregg blew the save, the Orioles lost in 11 innings, and the gaping hole in the earth that has swallowed the Orioles whole around this time each year, if not earlier, opened and sent its prey into the abyss yet again.
Beginning with that failed stab at .500, the Orioles have lost 24 of their past 32 games, leaving them at 38-55 and back in their familiar last place after Monday night’s series-opening 15-10 loss at Camden Yards to the Boston Red Sox.
“We still have a job to do,” third baseman Mark Reynolds said after a recent defeat. “They’re not going to cancel the rest of the season.”
And so, the competitive portion of the Orioles’ schedule has ended, and this will most likely be the franchise’s 14th consecutive losing season. If the Pittsburgh Pirates, six games over .500, manage to stay above that mark and end its streak of 18 straight losing seasons, the Orioles’ will be the longest in the sport.
If anything has distinguished this summer swoon from those of the past, it is the fact there had been actual hope in Baltimore — whether real or imagined — engendered by the 34-23 finish to 2010 under new Manager Buck Showalter, the 6-1 start to the 2011 season and the flirtation with .500 that lasted into mid-June.
In hindsight, all that did was make it sting even more when the collapse came.
“People are much more disappointed this year because everyone was starting to believe in this team,” said Bob Haynie, a born-and-raised Baltimorean and host of a sports-talk show on Baltimore’s 105.7 The Fan. “At least in 2010, by May of that season, we were resigned to the fact this was going to be one of worst teams in the history of the franchise.”
The culprits this time are familiar ones: a glaring lack of organizational depth that has been exposed by injuries, a handful of talented youngsters who have failed to live up to their potentials, a few stop-gap veterans who were brought on board just as they were inching past “aging,” toward “washed up.”
But without question, the most disturbing aspect of the Orioles’ slide has been the underperformance of its young pitchers. The team entered the season with a rotation featuring four 25-and-under hurlers — Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Brad Bergesen and Zach Britton — and with a fifth, Brian Matusz, waiting to come off the disabled list.
More than four months later, Tillman, Matusz and Britton — respectively, the franchise’s top pitching prospect of 2009, 2010 and 2011 — have all been demoted to the minors, while Monday’s starter Bergesen has been up and down twice, and Arrieta is saddled with the third-highest ERA (5.10) and second-highest walk rate (4.49 per nine innings) in the AL. Meantime, veteran Jeremy Guthrie, the anchor of the rotation, last week became the fastest pitcher to reach 13 losses in eight years.
“It would’ve been great if we continued winning games at the pace we were winning them last year,” Arrieta said, referring to the 34-23 finish under Showalter. “I think that might have been a little unrealistic, given the amount of young guys we have here.”
When asked about the feeling the Orioles had begun to turn a corner in the first two months of this season, General Manager Andy MacPhail interjected: “The corner will have been turned if our young starters come back and pitch the way they did last year. While I hate to lay it on their doorstep, that’s where it is. It’s too important a component. If you don’t have it, you’re going to struggle.”
The Orioles’ collapse has been accelerated during their current brutal stretch of schedule. Monday night’s game marked the team’s 15th straight against teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today; after Monday’s loss, they are 3-12 in that stretch. So it goes in the AL East: The Orioles are a respectable 28-32 against the five other divisions, but 10-23 within their own.
“Just play better,” Showalter said, dismissing talk of how tough the team has it. “It’s like the guy who goes to the first tee and wants strokes. It doesn’t work that way. Play better. Practice harder. This isn’t something they handicap beforehand. Nobody cares. Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody wants to hear about injuries.”
Perhaps soon, given recent developments in the NFL lockout, nobody in Baltimore is going to want to hear about the Orioles.
“The Ravens are the kings of Baltimore right now, and as soon as the lockout ends, the Orioles are going to be an afterthought here,” said 105.7 The Fan’s Haynie. “People just accept the [fact the] Orioles are one of worst teams in baseball. No one’s happy about it, but they’re just wondering when hope will ever come.”