As farfetched as the Orioles’ playoff aspirations now are, the feigned “we’re not dead yet” rallying cry will still emerge from their clubhouse in the coming days.
Before the team’s 8-2 loss to the New York Yankees on Friday night — another example dissecting the difference between postseason contender and pretender — manager Buck Showalter wasn’t going to give any indication that he believed the season was over.
“We’re trying to win 15 in a row now,” Showalter said.
For any professional sports team, especially one that started the season in such impressive fashion as this Orioles team did, one of the most difficult things to realize is the end. Baseball has a long season and several playoff spots, so even the worst team can go into the final months clutching to a realistic mindset that it can contend.
The Orioles, whose postseason aspirations have been sunk by a 4-10 record in September, will go into the late-afternoon game with the Yankees on Saturday with a “tragic” number of 10, meaning any combination of losses and Minnesota Twins victories will officially eliminate them from postseason contention. That seems like a lot, but it really isn’t.
They enter the day 5 1/2 games back of the Twins for the second American League wild-card spot with 14 games remaining and five teams ahead of them for that final playoff spot. And while the Orioles didn’t lose ground with Friday’s loss (Minnesota also lost) they not only have to put together a Cleveland Indians-like winning streak but also hope for collapses from the teams above them.
It’s not going to happen.
As the Orioles spent most of the second half bunched with a group of up to eight teams fighting for the second wild-card spot, Showalter has maintained that the Orioles couldn’t be preoccupied with the standings, that they were their own biggest competition. Regardless of how other teams played, they still had to win to have a chance.
And now, the priorities for the Orioles must switch from the playoff chase to merely saving face.
The Orioles (72-76) enter Saturday four games below .500, and they would have been long removed from the playoff mix had just one contender around them truly played like a playoff team. Instead, they all muddled around each other in .500 mediocrity. That’s given many teams, not just the Orioles, a false sense that they’re having a good season because they’ve been “contending.”
But if the Orioles are really going to get introspective about their season, the final 14 games should be about getting back to respectability.
Right now, the Orioles will need to end the season with a 9-5 record just to finish at .500. They’re less like the Orioles teams of the past that surged to the postseason in 2012, ’14, and ’16 and most like the 2015 team that needed to win its last five games just to end the season at 81-81. And even that team owned a better record after 144 games (73-75) than this year’s team.
And the next few days will be important. With a loss Saturday and a Tampa Bay Rays win, the Orioles would drop into fourth place in the AL East. And entering Saturday, they’re just three games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays for last place, so they could quickly find themselves scrapping to just fight their way out of the division cellar.