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Schmuck: During season on the brink, Orioles are losing the head games, too

From the very beginning of this disastrous season, the Orioles were a chemistry experiment gone horribly wrong.

The Opening Day roster was a montage of injured veterans, Rule 5 draft picks and controversial spring acquisitions draped with a thick layer of free-agent uncertainty. No wonder the season also would soon turn into a psychological drama.

The losing mentality that infects the clubhouse has recently become obvious by a series of fundamental lapses and defensive breakdowns that almost never showed up during the first five years of the Dan Duquette-Buck Showalter competitive revival.

In other words, the Orioles are losing the head games, too.

If you saw Tim Beckham get thrown out easily at the plate last weekend in a game the Orioles were trailing by four runs, you know what we’re talking about here. Three days later, Jace Peterson got thrown out stealing in a game the Orioles were trailing by four in the late innings.

Showalter conceded plays like those “don’t look good.” They also don’t reflect well on a manager who has long been a stickler for conserving outs, but he knows his players are dealing with unprecedented circumstances.

The Orioles entered Saturday on pace to win just 44 games, which would be 10 fewer than any other team since the franchise began playing in Baltimore. They went into Saturday in a 3-17 slump and are coming off a month of June in which they did not win a single game against an American League team.

That level of failure has to have an impact on the overall psyche of the team and on the ability of the players to remain focused on team goals.

So, Showalter acknowledges he has taken a slightly gentler approach toward correcting some of those problems and put more energy into improving the emotional climate.

“Every day,” he said. “You think about it constantly. You’re trying to create a little better atmosphere every chance you get. It’s hard, though, because it’s all driven by wins.

“I’ve been around teams where you lost a game and you felt like it was a fluke. … You can’t wait until tomorrow so you can get back to reality. You [get] a feel from being around a locker room what it feels like when it’s right and when it’s not.”

Of course, it has never really been right this year. The uncertain future of pending free agents Manny Machaco, Zach Britton, Adam Jones and Brad Brach planted seeds of doubt in the Orioles’ spring training clubhouse that grew into the losing mindset that grips the team at midseason.

“It was tough going into the season,” Showalter said. “One of the challenges we faced, kind of knowing that [trading Britton or Machado] was a possibility. That created a different atmosphere than we’ve had in the past.”

Outfielder Trey Mancini, whose breakout season in 2017 made him a finalist for AL Rookie of the Year, has felt the sharp difference between the time the Orioles were in contention last year and the frustration that has become the norm this season.

“Yeah, it’s different,” he said, “but no matter what the motivation is, we still want to win. The walk-off win [Tuesday] was awesome. We want to win every night and it’s always great when you can do that. And everybody personally wants to keep doing well and work on some things. Everybody has tremendous pride in what we do.”

No one wants to see longtime teammates traded away, but there seems to be a strong sense in the Orioles clubhouse that it’s time to get on with it.

“We all have a pretty good feel for a lot of the challenges we have,” Showalter said. “Leave it at that. Excuses and somebody trying to lay blame here or there … When you get to the point where we are, there are a lot of things that aren’t going as well as they should be.”

The Orioles hope to get good value for the players they have put up for trade, which would allow for a midseason reset and an opportunity to turn the team in a new direction.

That doesn’t mean the Orioles will be a better team without those players. They won’t. They’ll just be a team with a fresh perspective and a clearer view of the future.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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