For those fans who were starting to question their recently-renewed faith in the Orioles during this difficult midseason stretch, it’s probably a good time to take a breath and take a long look in the rear-view mirror.
The O’s prefaced Wednesday night’s victory over the Texas Rangers with six losses in their last eight games and suddenly find themselves looking up at the streaking Tampa Bay Rays, who have pushed them out of the second position in the American League wild card race. They certainly have not played particularly well of late, but there is some perspective to be found in the recent past.
Their loss on Tuesday came in their 91st game of the season, which – coincidentally enough – was the juncture last year when the Orioles were at their lowest point in the AL East standings. You can look it up and you should, because it also was the point when a lot of people were becoming convinced that the club was finally coming back to earth after a magical first half.
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It sure looked that way. The O’s had lost six of their previous eight games to fall a full 10 games out of first place. Everyone knows what happened soon after that, but no one can be sure if this team has what it takes to stage another terrific late-season rally to earn another playoff berth.
The good news is that the Orioles are in much better shape right now than they were at this time last year. They are eight games above .500 and just a few games out of the second wild card position. They are having trouble keeping pace with the Red Sox and the Rays at the moment, but they are very much in the hunt with a long way to go.
“I think that’s all you can ask for,’’ said first baseman Chris Davis. “Obviously, the Red Sox are playing outstanding right now. I think we’ve done a good job here and there, managing tough games. We had a stretch where we lost a few games and it was really tough to stay afloat. That’s something you’ve got to be able to do in this game – bounce back every day and have a good attitude -- and I think we’ve done a good job of that. We’re scuffling a little bit right now but it’s the middle of the season. Everybody’s kind of hitting a lull, so I think the break will do us good.”
Davis is one of the main reasons the Orioles have been able to remain competitive in spite of all the uncertainty that has surrounded the pitching staff through the first half. He leads the major leagues in home runs and has been the power plant in the middle of an explosive batting order that until a few weeks ago was having its way with some of the best pitchers in either league.
Maybe this is just a soft spot in a long season, but it’s fairly evident that the Orioles are struggling to reconstitute that strong offensive chemistry. Too many hitters have expanded their strike zones. Too few seem to be employing the “pass the baton” approach that manager Buck Showalter promoted so successfully last year and through the first couple months of this season.
“It’s been a challenge for us, because everybody wants to contribute,’’ Showalter said. “They want to be the guy. It’s been part of why we’re competing better, but it can also kind of get in your way a little bit. There are some guys that, try as you may, you’re not going to change some things. You just have to dwell on all the good things they do.”
There’s no question that some key hitters are pressing. It’s pretty obvious when high-quality hitters are flailing at balls that aren’t anywhere near the strike zone and continually putting themselves in vulnerable counts.
“Of course they are, but there’s a good pressing and a bad pressing,’’ Showalter said. “I don’t think it’s anything that some real quality starts pitching-wise and making runs matter (won’t cure). Like I said (Tuesday) night, we scored nine runs the last two nights. There should be a ‘W’ in there somewhere.”
Davis, who should be exempt from any such scrutiny by virtue of his 33 homers and 85 RBI, said it’s only natural to try to do too much when an opportunity arises to make a difference in the game.
“I think any time you’re in a close game, the competitor in you wants to go out there and do something to change that,’’ Davis said. “I mean, you can pass the baton as much as you want, but eventually somebody has got to step up and carry it.”