With the Orioles already entrenched in their early-season tailspin at the beginning of this month, executive vice president Dan Duquette said he would wait until Memorial Day before determining whether the team could compete for a playoff spot this season.
Now, the Orioles approach the holiday Monday having done little to improve the perception from four weeks ago that this is a wildly inconsistent club struggling to put together any winning momentum.
The Orioles went into Sunday’s series finale at Tropicana Field with a chance to collect their second road-series win of the season, but with an 8-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the club recorded its eighth non-winning road series out of nine this season as its majors-worst road record fell to 7-23.
The Orioles, 17-36 overall, reach Memorial Day having lost more than twice as many games as they’ve won, buried 20 games back of the American League East-leading Boston Red Sox and eight games behind Tampa Bay just for fourth place. They finished their three-city road trip 4-7.
The club’s decision-makers still might not be ready to tear this team apart yet — still uncommitted to trading pieces from a group of pending free agents, including superstar Manny Machado, who were core pieces to the team’s success from 2012 to ’16 — instead gearing for a July 31 sale at the trade deadline. Regardless, evaluation time is approaching.
“I hope guys aren’t worrying about that,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “It’s hard enough as it is to go about your business every day and try to get a win at the big league level. I hope guys aren’t worried about the future. I want them focused on this club, the things we’re doing well, not the things that we’re doing wrong, and trying to go out there and get a win. This game is hard, whether you’re a 10-year vet or you’ve been in the big leagues 10 days. You’re constantly making adjustments. That’s what it’s about. And for us as a team we have to stick together. We have to stay close and continue to pick each other up.”
But this three-game series at Tampa Bay put the Orioles’ inadequacies on display. They scored just three runs in the first two games of the series, then scored just as many in a heady three-run first inning that showed their promise. But then right-hander Kevin Gausman — who has been the team’s most consistent starter this season — not only failed to hold that lead but also couldn’t get out of the third inning while being blasted for a season-high seven runs.
Gausman, who has allowed two runs or fewer in six of his past seven starts, fell victim to a six-run third inning during which the Rays brought 12 batters to the plate, marking Gausman’s shortest nonejection game in 41 starts since a 2 2/3-inning outing April 18, 2017, in Cincinnati. He allowed seven runs over 2 2/3 innings on six hits, two walks and two hit batters.
The Orioles opened the series with a rare low-scoring win, the first time in 19 games they won when scoring two runs or fewer. The victory gave the Orioles back-to-back road wins for just the second time this season, but they failed to build from there. They couldn’t come back after a five-run second inning deficit Saturday and after Sunday’s first inning, the Orioles produced no offense.
“We’re only going to go as far as our pitching can take us,” Gausman said. “I feel like we’ve pitched well this year and on the other side not really done much. And also had the other side of it, too. It’s frustrating, but you always want to kind of one-up the next guy and I thought we did a pretty good job in Chicago of doing that. Obviously here, me and [Saturday’s starter Andrew] Cashner kind of let two games get away from us.”
Gausman was Sunday’s poster boy for the Orioles’ season-long struggles, but he’s by no means the one to blame. But in some ways, he’s the perfect example of how the Orioles have rarely been able to get on the same page this season. Despite quality starts in six of his 11 starts, the Orioles are 4-7 in games Gausman has started.
His three best starts of the season — an eight-inning, two-run effort against the Cleveland Indians on April 23, a nine-inning shutout effort on May 5 in Oakland and 6 1/3 innings of scoreless ball with a career-high 10 strikeouts in his last start in Chicago against the White Sox — were all Orioles losses.
In one outing, Gausman’s season ERA ballooned from 3.48 to 4.31.
On Sunday, Gausman was gifted a three-run first-inning lead as the Orioles took early momentum. For the third straight game, the Rays pitched a reliever — this time setup man Sergio Romo — to open the game to face the top of the batter order once before giving way to pitcher who could provide more length.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, guessing that right-hander Austin Pruitt would enter for Romo, put four left-handed hitters into his starting lineup. But when Romo landed in quick trouble by loading the bases four outs into the game, Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to left-hander Vidal Nuño to face Davis.
The Orioles overcame the poker play that inning. Davis drove in the game’s first run with a sacrifice fly to center field. With first base open, Danny Valencia was walked intentionally to set up a lefty-vs.-lefty matchup against Chance Sisco, but Sisco walked on five pitches to score a second run.
No. 8 hitter Craig Gentry then dropped a bunt to the left of the mound, making a difficult play for Nuño, who didn’t have a play at home and had to turn his body to throw to first. Gentry beat out a single to give the Orioles a 3-0 lead.
“It was there and Craig’s a good bunter and he took advantage of it,” Showalter said. “That’s one of the things you deal with when they start somebody like Romo because they can bring in anybody. They may say Pruitt but they can dictate the matchup. But it also happens when you’ve got nine guys in the bullpen. You can do those things.”
That wouldn’t be enough for Gausman, who allowed a 432-foot home run to the first hitter he faced, Brad Miller, who drove a 2-2 fastball over the plate to the Trop’s D-ring catwalk in right field.
Gausman hit the next batter and needed a 4-6-3 double play to avoid more damage that inning, but his command problems cost him in the third. He opened the inning by walking Christian Arroyo, allowed a single to No. 9 hitter Rob Refsnyder, and gave up a two-run double to Miller.
Gausman allowed five hits, walked three and hit a batter in the inning, ending his day on Arroyo’s two-run single with two outs in the inning. He left the game trailing 7-3 after allowing six runs in the third.
“With it being the rubber match, we put up a three-spot in the first inning, I feel pretty good about our chances,” Gausman said. “I’ve got to do a better job of going out there and shutting the door from the get-go. I give up a leadoff homer and really from then on I was kind of battling myself the whole game. Had a quick second, but got away with a couple pitches. It’s frustrating, but we’ve just got to find that consistency.”
The Orioles bullpen was forced to account for 5 1/3 innings, allowing just one run — Carlos Gomez’s homer off Pedro Araujo — and that workload could cost the team for the coming days as the team is in the midst of games on 19 consecutive days. The Orioles have played every day since May 16, and their next off day isn’t until a week from Monday. While Gómez’s homer was the only run the Orioles bullpen would allow, the innings weren’t easy. After Gausman walked two and hit two, three relievers accounted for six walks and one hit batter.
While Nuño allowed all three inherited runners to score in the first, he allowed no runs charged to him over three innings despite allowing seven base runners (three hits and four walks). Pruitt then pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings.