The bubble did not burst, but the Orioles returned from a seven-day trip to Cleveland and Detroit looking noticeably deflated. The club lost four of the last five games, with little relief in sight.
Left-hander Mike Flanagan struggled through a difficult week, giving up eight runs in one game and giving away three on a rare defensive lapse in another.
Right-hander Todd Frohwirth tried to help, but he also had trouble. The result was a middle-relief gap that proved damaging -- and discouraging -- on a trip the Orioles had every reason to expect would be successful.
"We had a pretty ragged road trip," said Flanagan, whose ERA ballooned to 9.00 after his eight-run nightmare in Detroit on Saturday night, "and it was especially discouraging for Todd and myself."
The bullpen breakdown began on the first night of the trip, when Flanagan and Frohwirth combined to give up two runs in the seventh inning, as the Detroit Tigers got back into a game that seemed well in hand. The Orioles held on to win, so it was not until two days later that the problem became more apparent.
That was the game in which Flanagan faced 13 batters in one inning and assisted in a 15-1 loss that stands among the worst in club history. "It's just one game," said manager Johnny Oates, but it apparently felt like an eternity to a proud left-hander who is having a tough time getting a handle on his role this year.
Flanagan complicated his situation three nights later in Cleveland when he picked up a squeeze bunt attempt and turned a potential out at the plate into a three-base throwing error that contributed to three runs. He had made just two errors in his previous 266 games, dating to 1983.
Frohwirth made four appearances on the trip, inheriting five base runners and allowing four of them to score. Storm Davis came into a tie game on Sunday and allowed RBI singles to the first two batters he faced.
"When you play as many games as we do, there are going to be times like this," said Davis, who righted himself with a strong two-inning performance on Wednesday. "If you look at it, they didn't hit the ball that hard. They just found the holes. If one or two of those balls had gone right at someone, it would be no big deal now."
To an extent, Flanagan and Frohwirth are victims of their success. Not much was expected of them when they joined the Orioles bullpen last year, but both finished the season among the most effective relievers in the American League. Flanagan ranked among the league leaders in innings pitched, something he won't do as the only left-hander in this year's bullpen. Frohwirth also ranked highly with innings pitched and with a 1.87 ERA.
"I think this is just a bad streak of luck," Frohwirth said. "There have been a lot of bloopers and grounders that have gotten through. I believe in the law of averages. I believe those things will even out."
Frohwirth has managed to keep his deadpan sense of humor. Someone pointed out that the law of averages might be at work against him for some time, because he had everything going his way in 1991.
"Yeah," he replied, "but you're not taking into consideration the three lousy years I had before that. I figure I've got a couple of more great years coming."
Flanagan's sense of humor is legendary, but it has been tested the past few weeks. Still, he has not lost hope that better times are ahead, and he credits the close-knit bullpen with helping to maintain a positive attitude at a difficult time.
"We have that closeness," he said. "I think everybody is pulling for everybody. Froh comes in and tries to pick me up. I want to pick him up. Oly [Gregg Olson] picks us all up. We're all in the same boat. But it's been especially tough on Todd and myself, being such a big part of the bullpen last year and having to struggle like this right now.
"I just haven't found that groove I had all last year, but I'm confident that once I find it, I can lock it in and hold on to it."
The club apparently will give him every opportunity to find his way back. Patience is a virtue that the Orioles can afford to display right now.
Confidence might be something else, but Flanagan said he feels that Oates has not given up on him in set-up situations. "Even in [Tuesday night's] game, I was still being brought in in the late innings," Flanagan said. "They haven't said, 'We'll see you in long relief until things work out.' "
It isn't as if the Orioles are reeling to the bottom of the standings.
The 3-4 road trip wasn't exactly a disaster. With Toronto losing yesterday, the club is just a game out of first.
"We can't panic," assistant GM Doug Melvin said. "This is the first bad stretch for the bullpen. You just hope it doesn't last long. These guys are veterans. You can't react to every bad outing. You've got to be cautious, or you'd go crazy."