Orioles in identity crisis: Where did the strong defense and fundamentals go?

The Orioles have an identity problem.

Over the course of their trade deadline overhaul, the Orioles continue to field a club that not only continues to lose, but does so playing an ugly brand of mistake-riddled, head-scratching baseball. And nothing encapsulated that like the club’s just-completed 1-8 road trip to Kansas City, Seattle and Tampa Bay.

For an organization built on strong fundamentals and good defense — two key staples of “The Oriole Way” — it might have been best that this disaster of a road trip occurred away from Camden Yards, because given the way Baltimore expects its team — whether competitive or not — to play with a blue-collar mentality that represents the city they play in, they might have otherwise been booed out of Oriole Park on a nightly basis.

Their road trip ended with an 8-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the last of three defeats at Tropicana Field that made clear how different the directions are between two division rivals building for the future.

For decades, the Orioles embraced their role among AL heavyweights like the Yankees and Red Sox, knowing the best path to success was by doing the little things right, but with this team, it is clear that the roster has lost its attention to detail.

And in a season that’s offered very few assurances for the future throughout the Orioles’ organization from top to bottom — whether it’s the statuses of baseball operations chief Dan Duquette, manager Buck Showalter or even longest-tenured player Adam Jones, who sat this entire series in favor of giving innings to other players — the only thing that seems certain is that the untested players being given opportunities to audition will have September to show whether they can fundamentally get better.

So far, they haven’t.

The Orioles (41-102) were charged with just two errors in their last two games against the Rays. But it was far worse than that, as they fell behind early following a cavalcade of mistakes both physical and mental.

“It’s one thing if you’re playing clean games that you can see everybody kind of improving, and you can see guys moving in the right direction and kind of taking advantage of opportunities,” said catcher Caleb Joseph, a home-grown Oriole in his 11th year in the organization. “But that’s just not what we’re seeing, so it’s extremely disheartening when you kind of play this sloppy game, extra bases, missed coverages, missed execution on all kind of different things.”

The Orioles failed to score in the first inning despite being the beneficiary of three straight walks to open the game, in part because leadoff man Cedric Mullins was thrown out attempting to steal second base while Rays starter Ryne Stanek was struggling to find the strike zone. In the second inning, the Orioles allowed a double steal — including a steal of home — when there wasn’t a player to cut off a throw to second and relay it home. Third baseman Renato Nunez allowed a popup to drop in front of him in foul ground, and then couldn’t make a play on a grounder off the bat of Willy Adames that was liberally ruled an infield hit.

“They don’t always show up in the error column, they don’t always show up in the run scored column,” Showalter said. “But even if you get away with it, you pay a penalty because your pitcher has to throw to two more hitters maybe that he shouldn’t have to throw to, and now someone is having to pitch an inning earlier and maybe you’re exposing a guy who shouldn’t have to pitch in that situation. … Everything has cause and effect, and most of it revolves around defense.”

That came after the Orioles allowed four unearned runs in the first inning in Saturday’s 10-5 loss to the Rays. They were charged for just one error in the inning, but made several mistakes defensively that didn’t go into the error column but cost them 90-foot intervals on the bases that led to a big inning.

Nunez’s throwing error opened the game, then right fielder Joey Rickard couldn’t corral a ball in the right field corner that extended Tommy Pham’s double into a triple. Pham scored on a wild pitch by David Hess. Adames extended the inning on an infield single on a back-handed play Nunez couldn’t convert, and second baseman Jonathan Villar allowed a run to score while chasing a runner back to first base. Before that, Villar ran the Orioles out of the inning in the top of the first, thrown out attempting to steal third with two outs and Chris Davis at the plate.

“It’s tough for a guy that’s been here for a number of years, it’s quite a change,” Joseph said. “But we’ve got to pull it together. This is an opportunity to take advantage of some time for these young guys and even the older guys, to get some stuff ironed out, and we’re not doing it and we’re wasting time, we’re wasting opportunity to turn this thing around in terms of the rebuild. These are valuable moments to start making adjustments and figuring out how to do things correctly. We keep making similar mistakes over and over and over and it’s just not going to cut it.”

Before Sunday’s game, Showalter warned against the temptation of looking too deeply into September evaluations, whether those evaluations are positive or negative. He said he and his staff are doing more day-to-day and in-game coaching than ever because there are so many players new to the organization playing every day.

“I don’t want to call it instructional league,” Showalter said before Sunday’s loss. “It’s more like spring training. There’s so many different players here. There’s a first-and-third defense we really can’t run with the experience of our defense. There’s a bunt defense. There’s a lot of different things. But we’re not going to give in. We’re going to continue to teach the game the way it needs to be played for us to win.”

“We’ll meet Tuesday and go over a lot of game mistakes and see if we can keep from repeating them,” Showalter said after Sunday’s game. “We made a lot of things that young players do, but also whether it’s Triple-A, Double-A or the big leagues, it’s not anything you can overlook.”

But in trading all of their cornerstone players — Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Brad Brach, Jonathan Schoop, Kevin Gausman and Darren O’Day, most of whom learned the focus on fundamentals through Showalter’s teachings — and turning the roster over to players from other organizations like Villar, Nunez and outfielder John Andreoli, many of whom are still unproven at the major league level, the Orioles lost their identity in the process.

Maybe it is because the club is suddenly inserting all these new pieces in season, but in the past, the Orioles’ universal message emphasized that playing good defense and being fundamentally sound was the only way to guarantee a player he would be able to wear an Orioles uniform. It was mandatory to play under Showalter. The Orioles gave opportunities, but players had to take advantage of them.

Now, the team — through the error-filled baseball it has played this month — has sent a message to its players that good defense and smart baseball isn’t all that important under the auspice that a rebuild will include its share of mistakes.

“We’ve got a lot of things going on here that we’ve got to stay on top of,” Showalter said. “I see the same things that you do. It’s not that hard, but unfortunately a lot of guys come up here with statistics that say one thing and then this huge jump. The biggest jump in sports is the level of hitters and pitchers you see up here compared to the minor leagues and a lot of times you’re just trying to see a lot of the constitution.”

Even though the only thing that matters statistically regarding this year’s Orioles team is how historically bad they will be, these next three weeks will serve as the foundation for the future. And the top priority should be getting back to “The Oriole Way.”

“It’s just time for this talent to start showing itself, and in spurts it has, and we’ve seen it,” Joseph said. “They always talk about in hockey, put together a full 60 minutes. They can play 55 minutes and if they stink for five it’s over. We’ve got to put together a full nine-inning game, period. How many times have we seen it this season where we’ve put in a full nine innings of good, crisp clean Baltimore-style game? The games we’ve been known to play. It just hasn’t happened. Forget the home runs, forget all that stuff. Play a good, clean game and see where we are after that.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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