Searching for a silver lining in what has been a nightmarish first half for Orioles starter Bud Norris, some solace could be derived from Norris' ability to keep the ball in the ballpark this year.
That glimmer of sunny optimism flickered Monday night when Norris allowed four home runs in an 8-1 loss to the Texas Rangers that snapped a four-game winning streak in front of an announced 21,565 at Camden Yards.
"It's just frustrating. I care so much and I want to help these guys win," said Norris (2-7). "We all seem to be playing a lot better baseball and I want to do my part. We gotta keep picking each other up and I'm glad I have this group to help me."
The Orioles (41-35) hadn't lost at home since June 14, winning 10 of their previous 11 at Camden Yards and 18 of their past 23 before Monday.
Their loss to the Rangers (39-38) also breathed new life into the lingering question: How long will manager Buck Showalter keep the struggling Norris, a 15-game winner last year, in the rotation?
Showalter didn't answer that directly — but he's not wavering in his public support of his veteran right-hander.
"Bud's had some tough losses when he's pitched well. You get opportunities, and some of the challenges have been self-inflicted and he's got to figure it out," Showalter said. "Opportunities, they're always going to be there for the most part when you have a track record like him. But he understands the competitive part of it and nobody wants to do it more than Bud."
Norris had allowed just seven homers in 10 outings this season, and hadn't yielded multiple longballs in any game in 2015. On Monday, he matched a career high for homers, tying the four he gave up against the Tampa Bay Rays last September.
Norris allowed five runs on nine hits and one walk in six innings, inching up his ERA from 6.70 to 6.79 after posting a 3.65 mark in 28 games last year. He's lost five of six decisions and hasn't won since beating the Cleveland Indians on June 7, his first start since coming off the disabled list.
"I think sometimes he's pressing too hard, trying to be perfect all the time," pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "He's a high-anxiety guy and he tries to put the horse before the carriage and get everything done and he gets all worked up about stuff instead of relaxing. So you've got to just relax and let your natural ability take over. I think that's more of what he's got to do and he knows it. It's on him."
Norris, who missed nearly a month this season due to a bout with bronchitis, has just three quality starts in 11 tries — and as the season creeps into July and the All-Star Break approaches, his starting spot becomes more precarious.
With Kevin Gausman joining the rotation for a spot start Thursday, it's possible Showalter could decide to take Norris out of the rotation. But that seems unlikely for now – or at least through the All-Star Break. The Orioles' manager is fiercely loyal to players with track records and he said Monday afternoon that Gausman will likely be sent back to Triple-A Norfolk after his outing in the finale of the four-game series against the Rangers.
Norris said he's not looking over his shoulder at Gausman or some of the organization's other young pitchers, such as Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson.
"I try not to. Buck's given me confidence to go out there and do my job," Norris said. "I think he really knows what kind of guy I am and so I think that says a lot. But I can't worry about what's behind me. I just want to help those guys. We've got some really good young talent coming through, and I had a lot of fun in spring training helping those guys."
Norris, a pending free agent at season's end, has said all year that his focus is on doing the best job he can for his current team.
"I don't know where my future's gonna take me. All know is I can handle what's in front of me right now and trying to work through this is the number one priority," he said. "Getting back out there and helping my team win games."
On Monday, the Rangers scored their first run in a bizarre fashion – after Mitch Moreland appeared to be thrown out during what should have been a home run trot.
With one out in the second, Moreland hit a fly ball to right that appeared to hit the out-of-town scoreboard and bounce back into play. Moreland tried for a double and Delmon Young threw a strike to second base for what would have been the Orioles' major-league leading 23rd outfield assist.
But the umpires reviewed the play and ruled that Moreland's shot cleared the scoreboard – giving him his 11th homer of the season – and a delayed stroll around the bases after a pit-slide at second.
In the second inning, Norris allowed a solo home run to Texas catcher and ninth-placed hitter Carlos Corporan and Moreland absolutely crushed an 88-mph pitch from Norris into the right-center seats for a two-run shot in the third. It was Moreland's sixth career multi-homer game and the fourth by a Ranger this year.
Texas homered for the fourth consecutive inning against Norris when Shin-Soo Choo led off the fifth with his ninth home run. The Rangers picked up three more runs in the seventh against reliever Tommy Hunter on the first triple of Joey Gallo's big league career. The rookie slugger fanned in his first three at-bats, all against Norris.
The Orioles mounted their best rally versus veteran lefty Wandy Rodriguez (5-3) in the bottom of the fifth. Adam Jones singled home Caleb Joseph with the bases loaded and one out. Rodriguez struck out Chris Davis and Delmon Young flied out.
The Orioles struck out 14 times in the game – twice Steve Pearce was called out looking by home plate umpire John Hirschbeck on low-and-outside pitches. In the sixth, the mild-mannered Pearce jawed at the veteran umpire and lingered in the batter's box much longer than usual. Several Orioles, including Ryan Flaherty and Davis, also questioned Hirschbeck's wide and inconsistent strike zone.
"I'm not going to comment on the strike zone," Pearce said. "I'm just going to stay away from that. Don't know the rules on that, so I'm just gonna chalk it up, flush it and go back out tomorrow."
It was a frustrating night for an Orioles' team that had been one of the hottest in baseball over the past three weeks.
It was particularly frustrating for a starting pitcher who hasn't been able to find the consistency he had last year, and -- with three months of the season behind him -- keeps struggling.
"I really think that's a big part of it, understanding it's [a] full season. I'm not a first-half guy, I hope I'm a second-half guy," said Norris, who was 8-2 with a 3.27 ERA in 13 second-half starts last year. "I know what I did for this team last year in the second half and I just want to get back to that guy."
His pitching coach, for one, thinks Norris can be that guy again.
"He is getting there. We hope he does, but it's a process," Wallace said. "I think sometimes you've just got to get out of your own way."