Maybe everyone was just too optimistic about the Orioles

With injuries, inconsistency, the club has failed to capitalize on its chances in the AL East

Maybe everybody just expected too much after the Orioles went on that free-agent spending spree in spring training and opened the season with such promise.

The Las Vegas sports books picked the Orioles as barely a .500 team before the season, and a lot of the national media cast doubt about the team's ability to stick around to the end in the American League East, which evoked some predictable finger-wagging in the clubhouse. Now it's starting to look as if we should have listened.

Sure, there have been obstacles — the latest rising up this week, when it became official that catcher Matt Wieters will be lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction. The Orioles also played without Manny Machado for an extended period to begin the year, and first baseman Chris Davis and right-hander Miguel Gonzalez have both spent time on the disabled list.

That probably would be enough misfortune to explain their struggle to maintain a winning record if things weren't tough all over the AL East. They've actually played pretty well against their division rivals so far — 18-12 after their 7-5 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday. But their inability to get into any extended offensive rhythm has conspired with a maddeningly inconsistent starting rotation to make them look like a team that might be treading water until it's too late.

There have been several points during the first half of the season when they could have turned a corner and built a cushion above sea level. But too many opportunities to win series and pick up ground on the first-place Toronto Blue Jays and the other division contenders have slipped away unexploited.

It is those moments that account for the difference between first place and where they stood after Tuesday night's game — in third place, four games behind Toronto. There have been 13 series this season in which the Orioles reached the final game with a series victory hanging in the balance, and they are 4-9 in those games. They'll play another such game this afternoon.

Obviously, they've also had to play very well at some other junctures to avoid being under .500, but if you haven't been scratching your head just about all season long, you haven't been paying close attention.

How does anyone explain the way the offense makes good pitchers look bad on a fairly regular basis and bad pitchers look good just as often?

It must be frustrating for fans to watch the starting pitchers settle into a groove, like the recent stretch of eight straight quality starts that ended Tuesday night, and have the team come out of that impressive run with a 4-4 record in those games.

No doubt, that is just as disturbing to manager Buck Showalter and the front office, but there doesn't appear to be any solution other than to hope that the hitters figure it out before the pitchers regress to the mean.

It's easy enough to point to the loss of Wieters and the continuing struggles of the hitters at the bottom of the order, and wonder whether there is some magic move that executive vice president Dan Duquette can make to tighten up the roster.

The Orioles could go in search of another veteran catcher, but they just went down that road with Nick Hundley, and it's not as if they can afford to fish out the minor league system a second time for a player who will be Wieters' backup next year.

And, anyway, it isn't the lack of a big-hitting catcher or the predictable struggles of a promising young second baseman that has put them in this spot. The only reason they're not several games under .500 is that Duquette gave up a high draft choice and picked up Nelson Cruz for just $8 million in February.

The difference between this year's offense and the one that ranked fifth in the major leagues in runs scored last year can be found in the individual performances of the players at the heart of the Orioles lineup.

Davis has delivered about half the run production he did by this time last year, which cannot be totally explained away by the 15 games he missed with an oblique injury. J.J. Hardy had 13 home runs and 37 RBIs after 62 games last season. Through Tuesday, he has just 15 RBIs in his first 62 games this year and has yet to hit his first home run.

Machado obviously has an excuse, since he missed the first month of the season after recuperating from knee surgery all winter, but that doesn't mean the team misses his production any less while he fights to get back on track.

Adam Jones has heated up and is almost on pace to match his big numbers from last season, and Nick Markakis is having a solid bounce-back season. But that won't be enough to keep the Orioles in contention if the Blue Jays get on another big roll, or the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox heat up (all of which might very well happen).

Showalter can only hope his lagging stars make good on the popular baseball theory that hitters usually return to their career averages over the long season.

If they don't, there really isn't anything the club can do during the midseason trading period that is going to make any difference.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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