Not long ago, the Orioles and Nationals were the toast of baseball. Now, if they don't watch out, they'll just be toast. If this is all part of some elaborate initiation ritual for those who are rediscovering baseball, it can end any time now, thanks.
When July began, both teams were talking about October. Now, the Orioles may be on the brink of playoff irrelevance before August even arrives. And the Nats, who started their own swoon two weeks after the Orioles, are flirting with the same fate.
Last night, to underline their mutual plight, the Orioles lost for the 11th time in 13 games and fell to .500. Instead of talk of a postseason invitation, Baltimore is now more likely to discuss the possibility of an eighth straight losing season. Meanwhile, the Nats fell for the 14th time in 17 games and, with a breath-taking swiftness, are no longer even leading the NL wild-card race.
To make the homely parallel unmistakable, both teams lost in their customary fashion. Baltimore's starting pitching failed, underlining a structural flaw that's unlikely to change this season. As for the Nats, they lost their 10th consecutive one-run game within a three-week period. Such nightly root-canal agony should either inoculate or eradicate the team's novice fan base.
Most of this monsoon of Nats misery arrived after GM Jim Bowden risked angering the gods by proclaiming that his Nats might win the World Series even if he didn't add any more players. Jim, better check that waiver wire for Joe Hardy, quick.
Couldn't baseball have waited a little longer before delivering such a reality check? Apparently not. The threat of a sudden season-scorching collapse has always been a central part of the game's gallows lore. We're just getting a dastardly double dose.
"What we're going through now is the hardest part [of baseball] and the beauty of the game in the same breath," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said before this latest defeat. Like any veteran, he stands in awe of the game's ability to convince teams that their "luck" or the "breaks" can run either hot or cold for incredibly unlikely lengths of time.
Such times, and tests, are not for every taste. But they're so integral to the sport, to the making and unmaking of teams, that you can't turn your eyes away. As any great slump reaches its peak, resistance almost seems futile, although it is also essential.
If the Nats need an object lesson, they should gaze upon the mess that the Orioles, now back at 51-51, have become. For five agonizing weeks since June 22, the Orioles have executed an uninterrupted swan dive that's plummeted them to the same bleak status they've occupied for many seasons: fourth in the AL East and a remote seventh in the wild-card race.
As for the Nats, they still look respectable in the standings. But if they don't reverse course soon, they'll be in the same spot as the Orioles -- looking up at so many teams, both in their own division and for the wild card -- that every out-of-town score will seem to bring bad news. So many teams are ahead of you that several of them are almost always winning.
Though the Nats chances of participating in a pennant race are rapidly becoming dire, the Orioles are already in critical condition if they have any hopes of staying in contention. And they know it down to their long-suffering bones.
"I thought we were too good for this. I thought we could stay out of the big slumps," said Rafael Palmeiro, who has watched such calamities for 20 years. "Nobody understands these things. Nobody ever really knows what to do. You just keep playing the game. You know things will change eventually. They always do. But you just hope it happens soon."
In baseball, "eventually" can seem like eternity because the sport's streaks are so extreme, prolonged and unpredictable. For those fans who have just caught the baseball bug this season, the Orioles and Nats are proving how much hardiness is required.
For example, what is 30-16, 12-12 and 9-23?
That, of course, is the progression of the Orioles' season. They began hot, turned tepid and are now so deep in the freezer they should have icicles on their caps.
And what is 24-25, 26-6, 5-17?
That's been the progression of the Nats, attracting less attention early in the year before becoming the sport's most flamboyantly successful team at midseason. Now, all since the Fourth of July, Washington has lived out every cynic's prediction of "returning to the mean."
While the Orioles and Nationals may appear to be in very similar situations, the Nats' misfortunes may not yet have become ingrained in the team's sense of itself. For those who think that the Orioles will suddenly snap out of it, perhaps thanks to pre-July 31 trades (such as last night's deal of Larry Bigbie for Eric Byrnes), that hope is probably an illusion. Baltimore hasn't played well in over two months. The Birds are 21-34 since May 27. That's more than a third of a season of playing at a 100-loss pace.
At the moment, both local teams are in a torment of confusion and disappointment. We've got stereophonic moaning. For weeks, neither has known what to do to change its performance or its luck. But that's the nature of baseball's long summer test. Almost every team has, or will, suffer what the Orioles and Nats are now enduring. The Astros, now ahead of Washington for the wild card, had a 4-12 slump in April and a 4-17 stumble in May. Oakland, which has stormed past the Orioles in the wild-card hunt, went 4-20 earlier this season. The Yankees have had 2-8 and 2-10 periods of embarrassment.
By the last day of the season, almost every team in the sport, including the eventual playoff teams, will have passed through the fire of extended periods where they seemed completely lost. They will feel, as the Orioles and Nats do now, that when a slump can't possibly get any worse, it finds some new humiliation to inflict.
Repeat, as Palmeiro does, that "this too shall pass" -- because it always does. But how soon? And after how much damage has been done?