In late September, when playoff hopes are dangling by a string, a slow-rolling baseball can do serious damage.
That was the case Sunday in the Orioles’ 7-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, when Kevin Kiermaier’s dribbler to second base turned into a game-winning infield single. It ended a tense battle and likely extinguished the Orioles’ already faint hopes of making the postseason for the third time in four years.
“I don't get (into) that gloom and doom. You guys can. We don't do that,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said following Sunday’s loss. “There's math there and good things ahead of us. And we're going to try to win the rest of our games and make it tough on everybody. I know the world people choose to live in. We choose not to.”
The Orioles’ playoff math is now a nearly unsolvable equation.
With 13 games remaining, the Orioles (73-76) have dropped to 5 1/2 games behind the Houston Astros for the second wild card spot in the American League. Three other teams separate the Astros and Orioles — making a run to the playoffs unlikely.
“I have to be optimistic or what’s the reason for me coming here and playing?” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. “If I think we’re done, I should pack up my whole locker and go home. Until that day happens, I always think I have a chance.”
Although realistically out of the American League East race for weeks, it will become official soon. The Orioles are 12 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays with 13 left, so their “tragic number” is two — meaning any combination of Orioles’ losses and Blue Jays’ wins that adds up to two will eliminate the Orioles from defending their division crown.
Reality came crashing in during the ninth inning Sunday in front of an announced 17,801 at Tropicana Field.
With a 6-5 lead in the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles turned to closer Zach Britton, who had converted 34 of 37 chances this year. He immediately blew his fourth.
Britton’s first pitch to pinch-hitter Brandon Guyer was a 96-mph sinker that stayed elevated. Guyer slammed it to deep center for his seventh homer of the season, tying the game at 6-6. He previously was 2-for-9 with a home run against Britton in his career.
“I figured Guyer was going to be aggressive, I’ve faced him enough,” Britton said. “Just (threw) a sinker that didn’t sink.”
Britton (4-1) struck out the next batter before Evan Longoria tripled to right. Britton intentionally walked Logan Forsythe, who had homered in the fifth, and then walked rookie Richie Shaffer on five pitches to load the bases.
Joey Butler struck out, bringing the speedy Kiermaier to the plate with two outs. Kiermaier had struck out in all three of his previous at-bats against Britton, who threw two quick strikes.
“I got the guy up there that I wanted in Kiermaier. Got him 0-2,” Britton said. “Just didn’t execute an 0-2 pitch. And it’s an infield single. But, at the same time, I’ve got to execute a little bit better 0-2 and get us back in the dugout.”
Another 96-mph sinker — one that sank — and Kiermaier hit it softly toward second. Jonathan Schoop charged it, but the way his body was positioned, his only play was at first. The ball arrived an eyelash too late, Longoria scored. And the Orioles were dealt another blow. They’re now 22-25 in one-run games this season while the Rays (72-77) won in walkoff fashion for just the second time in 2015.
“It’s tough, man. We had it right there,” Jones said. “It shows the fight in them. It shows the fight in both of us, the sense of urgency in both teams. They both needed the wins, and it shows that no one is giving up on the season. The Rays, they’re in the same boat as us, they’re playing to the last out.”
The Orioles had chances — they took a 6-4 lead in the top of the eighth thanks to a miscue by Longoria and some hustle by Steve Pearce.
With Pearce on first after a walk, Paul Janish hit a sharp bouncer to third base that skipped off Longoria’s glove and between his legs. Running on contact with two outs, Pearce raced from first and slid ahead of the throw to make it 5-4. Gerardo Parra then singled to shallow center to plate Janish for the two-run lead.
It was the second time in the game that the Orioles had taken the lead. They scored three runs in the third against Tampa Bay starter Jake Odorizzi, two on the 43rd home run of the season by Chris Davis. It gave him the majors’ lead again, breaking a tie with former Oriole Nelson Cruz, now with Seattle.
The Rays had their own three-run inning in the fifth when Forsythe hit a two-out, three-run homer against Kevin Gausman.
“Threw some real good elevated fastballs. Really just one pitch (hurt),” said Gausman, who allowed four runs on eight hits and a walk in six innings. “I left (it) too center to a good hitter and that was the difference between me going seven and giving up one run and only going six and giving up four.”
Still, the Orioles had the lead and the sense that they could win their fourth series in a row. Instead, they lost for just the second time in 63 games in which they were ahead after the eighth.
Now they come back for a three-game series in Washington against the Nationals before heading to Boston for their last road trip of the season.
The playoff math just got a whole lot more difficult.
“Where we are right now, every win’s big. To kind of get out of here with another victory would have been really nice,” Britton said. “So, yeah, it’s going to be a frustrating flight back home, especially for me.”