How did this happen? Orioles players examine why this season spun out of control

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Pose the question to anyone in an Orioles uniform, and the pause before he speaks is pregnant. The sigh is audible, the stare far away. The question is almost as loaded as the possible answers — and there's no one answer.

Danny Valencia stood silent for 30 seconds, gathering his thoughts. Adam Jones answered for four minutes, uninterrupted, and said he could have gone on for two hours.

As they near the halfway point at a 112-loss pace, on track for one of the worst seasons in major league history, the Orioles players who created this reality have already had plenty of time to take stock of the simple question that couldn't change much when the moment arrived to answer it: How did this happen?

"It's hard to fathom how a team with this much talent hasn't played — well, has played as poorly as we have and gotten results as poorly as we have," reliever Darren O'Day said. "I wish I could figure it out. I don't know. I really don't."

"We just got into a funk, and it kept going and going," shortstop Manny Machado said. "Honestly, I don't even know when it started. It's just been the whole thing. It's been the whole run."

The baseball reasons have been tread over time and again. Injuries forced depth players into prominent roles to replace the likes of Zach Britton, Mark Trumbo, Jonathan Schoop, Tim Beckham, Colby Rasmus and O'Day for long stretches. Chris Davis, one of the lineup’s centerpieces, is on pace for one of the worst season's in baseball history, and the two productive young hitters who carried the load in 2017 — Schoop and Trey Mancini — haven't repeated that. The starting rotation, while improved, has taken months to shake itself out, and the bullpen never found a groove without Britton.

But the Orioles rode a good feeling as much as they did talent through the five seasons at .500 or better beginning in 2012, and to lose frequently and continuously into the halfway point of 2018 takes more than just stats into play.

This year’s Orioles have had everything go wrong that possibly could, and a combination of uncertainty about individuals' and the club's future with every player's own efforts to correct things on his own left the team out of the playoff picture a month into the season. Their good times were fleeting, and worst of all, they didn't know they should have enjoyed it.

"You play almost every day, and it can get on you in a hurry," Opening Day starter Dylan Bundy said. "That's what happened, I feel like. We lost a few games early — a lot of games early — and it kind of ended up where we are now."

An early fall

The Orioles won the day Bundy made that first start, on a walk-off home run by Jones in the 11th inning. In a lot of ways, it was the high-water mark of the season, and in a season with so few moments like it, some players lament the fact that they treated it as one win of many to come instead of savoring it more. The way the season started had a lot to do with why there are few moments to match that one.

The win over the Minnesota Twins began a challenging stretch of 17 of their first 23 games against the American League's five playoff teams from a season ago. After Opening Day, the Orioles lost five straight, including a sweep in Houston on their first road trip, before taking three of four at Yankee Stadium.

"We played good baseball, guys got clutch hits — and they're a good team," Valencia said. “And since then, it's ... it's weird. Sometimes, you feel like the attitude is you hope you win instead of you know you're going to win, and if you lose, you know what, it's an aberration and you move on. When I've played on good teams in the past, you showed up at the park expecting to win. Here, we're hoping to win, which I wouldn't say is ideal."

For Britton, the series at the New York Yankees was the last time anything felt right.

"From a guy that wasn't participating, it just seemed like everything was kind of out-of-whack from the get-go in spring, minus Opening Day and that series in New York," he said.

April and May each had an 0-6 road trip, the first featuring Schoop's oblique injury as they went 0-6 through Boston and Detroit. That contributed to a 6-17 record in that meaningful 23-game stretch.

It was a barometer of sorts, showing the gap between the Orioles and the class of the league, but it was also an outsized challenge for a team that wasn't playing good baseball regardless of the opponent. A drop in opponent quality didn't lead to a results change, as evidenced by their 0-6 West Coast trip against the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics in early May.

During the first trip, in mid-April, Jones spoke on behalf of the team and said if the Orioles didn't turn it around by May 3, then there would be trouble. They were blown out May 3 by the Angels and got swept in an Oakland series that included nine scoreless innings from Kevin Gausman mixed in.

When May 3 came, "it felt like the next day, and we still weren't playing well," Jones said.

Mancini and Britton realized it had probably gone beyond a slow start on that trip, too.

"I remember going there still thinking we could turn it around, especially with the group we have," Mancini said. "And yeah, that was kind of a tough road trip and when [the struggles] turned [into] a real thing, maybe. It’s just a tough thing to explain."

An inefficient club

That phrase — the group we have — is a refrain commonly heard in the Orioles clubhouse. Save for pointing out which players they've missed because of injury, no one called another by name. There is no finger-pointing on a team where everyone can shoulder blame.

But gazes floated around the room in the visiting clubhouses in Washington and Atlanta, scanning to see where the inexplicable strugglers were.

Mancini, rated as a capable defender as a rookie left fielder who hit .293 with 24 home runs and 78 RBIs last season, banged his knee on a sliding catch in mid-April and hasn't been the same since. Schoop was an All-Star last year, swatting a career-high 32 home runs while also batting .293. Save for a few games this past week, he hasn't hit well on either side of his oblique injury. Davis' collapse at the plate necessitated over a week off to try to break his bad habits.

Combine the offensive problems with the team considering defense less when acquiring players — especially after fielding carried the Orioles to three playoff appearances from 2012 to 2016 — and Jones sums it up simply.

"My answer to that is efficiency," Jones said. "However you want to dig into that, you can dig into that many ways. But our efficiency is way down."

He said the defense hasn't met previous standards in terms of converting ground balls into outs. He acknowledged the outfield hasn't been highly rated metrically or conventionally since Nick Markakis left, with their collective -70 defensive runs saved entering Saturday the worst in the league, according to FanGraphs.

All that has put pressure on the pitchers, to say nothing of the hitters who try to make up for the defense every at-bat. For years, their collective power masked the swing-and-miss and on-base deficiencies of the group. Now, only the latter remains.

"Offensively, I don't want to say we're carrying our defense to offense, but we're always trying harder than we need to try, if that makes sense," Jones said. "It's just our efficiency on offense. We'll get a double, and we won't get him over and in. ... This game is all about efficiency. How many runs can you score efficiently? To me, that's my biggest reason why our season is the way it is. And it's not from a lack of effort."

Davis summed up a lot of the team's struggles in noting "the lack of diversity in our lineup.”

“And I think you're starting to see that,” he said. "We have a lot of great players on our team. We have a lot of very talented guys, but the most talented team doesn't always win. You have to have a team that is versatile, that can do a lot of different things, steal bases. You can't just have a group of sluggers. I think we're kind of finding that out. It's nice to be able to hit a three-run home run. Sometimes you just need to be able to move the runner over or little things like that."

A cloudy future

It might be a fair criticism that the Orioles are realizing these things long after many who follow them. But just as much of their flawed approach can be blamed for this season’s collapse, so too can the circumstances the team has found itself in from a roster standpoint with so many key figures’ contracts expiring at once.

From Machado and Britton to Brad Brach and Jones, the team let four All-Stars, plus manager Buck Showalter and executive vice president Dan Duquette, reach the final years of their contracts at the same time. Seeing that has already seeped into the mindset of players whose free agency is on the horizon, and created a climate around the team.

That's been exacerbated by short-term roster decisions that fly in the face of Duquette's early-June declaration that the team would focus on the future. But the climate of one last run with this team was one that really only Machado, who is motivated by his switch to shortstop and the nine-figure payday awaiting him this winter, could overcome.

"I mean, it's taken over a lot of the focus," Jones said. "One thing we've been good at is being professionals. [Machado’s] been great at it because, obviously, all the stuff going on from starting at Thanksgiving basically. He was trying to have some turkey and next thing you know, they're just talking about him being traded. But he's handled it. He's handled it extremely well, because at the end of the day, he's a pro."

Machado sees no reason to change what he did in either that lens, the lens of the team's struggles or the lens of his disappointing 2017.

"I didn't expect to struggle last year, and I did, and we got out of it," he said. "The only thing you can do is keep going and leave it out on the field like we all have been, and just hope for the best."

Showalter has praised Machado for his steadiness through the circus that has followed the Orioles into every major city they've played, with media projecting his joining their club at every stop.

By adding Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb, two of the top free-agent starting pitchers available this past offseason, the Orioles positioned themselves well for a run this year. The rotation is the only facet of the team that’s taken a step forward, but that optimism quickly vanished, and the players have spent the past two months wondering when the club would be scrapped for parts.

"Going into spring, it was like, 'This is kind of our last go at it,' and if we struggled, we figured even though the team hasn't really traded any pieces off recently, that maybe that would be the thing," Britton said. "The clubhouse, even with the same group of guys, it's just a different feel.

“A lot of that I think is just the fact that we're losing, and you keep hearing about what the organization is going to do in the future, knowing that you only have this year left. So, I think a lot of whatever is going on is just figuring out, what are they going to do? As soon as they decide on what path they're going to take, I think a lot of the atmosphere in the clubhouse will change one way or the other. But it can only be beneficial to just kind of have that direction so they can settle in."

Setting a course

A priority has become charting a path forward for those whose names aren’t populating the latest trade rumors and industry gossip, a delicate balance with the prospect of a half-season of games counting on the team’s record and every player’s resume affected. They’re past the point of wallowing. Now it’s time to work through it and improve this year so there’s something to build on going forward.

Whether it's veterans such as Davis and Trumbo or young players such as Bundy and Mancini, the gaze is already a forward-looking one, even if the present can't be thrown aside. Losing on a regular basis is bound to irritate, but it needs to be channeled.

"If at any point you get to the point where losing doesn't sting, it's probably time to go home," Trumbo said.

Said Davis: "After you express that frustration, after you've let that emotion go, you have to start thinking, 'OK, what's next?' That's where we're at right now. The time for breaking bats and throwing helmets and acting like 4-year-olds, that's over with. We need to start thinking, 'OK, what are we going to do to make ourselves better in the years to come?’ — especially for me, for Trey, for guys that are going to be here for a few years."

Davis, whose own extended hiatus in June is likely an unintentional manifestation of the Orioles using now to figure out later, thought back to his arrival from the Texas Rangers in 2011 as “concrete evidence” that how one season ends can carry into the next season.

It happened in the opposite direction this year with the Orioles after last year’s September collapse. But Davis recalled how even in a losing 2011 season, the Orioles learned to win.

“I remember winning games at the end of the season and thinking, 'Man, there's something special about this,’ ” Davis said. “And it carried over into 2012, and we rode that success for several years. But it's something where we've started addressing the issues you have in front of you, and start building a winner and not just try to field a winning team."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.

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