Orioles head into the All-star break after a 3-2 loss to the Nationals.
As the Orioles stumbled into the All Star break on Sunday afternoon — losing 3-2 to the Washington Nationals for their 10th defeat in their last 13 games — there seemingly was no sense of dread in the home clubhouse.
Yes, this has been the worst stretch of the season for the Orioles (44-44), who fell to the .500 mark for the first time since June 14.
Yes, their offense is an apparent mess — the Orioles managed just one hit in their last 36 at-bats with runners in scoring position in their past six games, and had just one such opportunity Sunday afternoon against one of baseball's best hurlers, Max Scherzer.
And yes, the pitching staff is enigmatic, with Sunday's starter Wei-Yin Chen and the previously embattled Ubaldo Jimenez serving as the club's only starting pitchers performing to their potential.
Yet somehow, some way, this beat-up, flawed, flummoxing club is still in third place in the mediocre American League East, just four games behind the first-place New York Yankees and one-half game back of the Tampa Bay Rays.
"We don't look at what somebody else is doing or can do until we do things we can do and have done this year to be consistent," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "A lot of baseball left, and we're engaged in the competition and will continue to be."
So they're not dead yet — not with a half yet to play.
"It's a long season ahead. There's a lot of moving parts going on, that's just how July is," third baseman Manny Machado said. "Trades start coming up, people start getting released. I guess team chemistry starts getting tested. But we've just got to keep fighting and keep our heads up."
Sunday's loss, before an announced sell-out crowd of 46,247, was typical of this season's malaise: One unit excelled and the other sputtered. The Orioles received a strong outing from Chen (4-5) who allowed three runs (two earned), all in fourth inning.
Overall, Chen permitted eight hits and no walks while striking out seven in eight innings for his fifth consecutive quality start and seventh straight outing in which he has allowed two earned runs or fewer. He ends the first half with a 2.78 ERA in 110 innings spanning 17 starts.
"I pitched more innings than I thought I could [in the first half]," Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. "So I'm satisfied with the number of innings I pitched and hopefully I can have a pretty good second half, too."
Chen was the tough-luck loser because he was competing against Scherzer, who allowed just four hits, including two solo homers by Adam Jones, in 8 2/3 innings. Scherzer, who likely would have started Tuesday's All Star Game for the National League had he not pitched Sunday, would have had a complete game if Jones hadn't homered with two outs and two strikes in the ninth. It was Scherzer's 115th pitch.
"No one can solve that man," Jones said of Scherzer. "He's throwing the ball extremely well, and you see it out there. He knows it. You got to bring your A game because he's always on his A game."
It was Jones' seventh multi-homer game of his career and it gave him 180 homers in eight seasons with the Orioles, breaking an eighth-place tie with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who played six seasons with the club.
"He did that in six years here? Took me eight. He's a little better," Jones said laughing. "But any time you are in the conversation with him, especially with this rich history the Orioles do have, it's pretty cool."
Washington closer Drew Storen entered in the bottom of the ninth and struck out Chris Davis to secure his 27th save and keep the Nationals (48-39) two games ahead of the New York Mets in first place in the National League East.
The Orioles are now 30-23 all-time against the Nationals, with the two teams meeting again this September 21-23 for three games in Washington DC.
By then, the Orioles' 2015 fate may already be decided. For now, it's still a mystery. Are they finally healthy enough to put together a real run? Or will they need reinforcements from the trade market to have a chance?
"I feel great with the guys here. Hopefully, we are buyers at the trade deadline. Every team can use one or two guys to help out," Jones said. "Obviously, one or two guys that are out there on the open market could definitely help this team. But I'm not the GM. So I don't know those moves. They don't ask me."
Executive vice president Dan Duquette typically makes moves in July and August, but they're more likely to be under-the-radar deals than headliners. Duquette's biggest trade with the Orioles was last July 31 when he sent pitching prospect Eduardo Rodriguez to the Boston Red Sox for left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, who helped the Orioles win the division title before leaving last winter as a free agent.
Showalter said he believes the roster, as it is currently constructed, has enough talent to repeat as AL East champs. His case is strengthened now that key players such as catcher Matt Wieters, shortstop J.J. Hardy, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and starter Kevin Gausman are back from disabled list stints.
"I try to stay on the positive side of that," Showalter said. "We had some good people come in and keep us engaged in the competition and we're there. … All the answers we're going to need are in our locker room and in our organization. I'm very confident in the people we have."
Four Orioles — Jones, Machado and relievers Darren O'Day and Zach Britton — headed to Cincinnati on Sunday evening for the annual All Star Game. The rest of the players scattered throughout the country and will meet up again in Detroit, where the Orioles will begin the second half Friday with the first of nine road games in 10 days.
With their mercurial play, the Orioles have created an uphill battle in an attempted return to the playoffs. But, thanks to the continual struggle that is the AL East, they also are still in the conversation with 74 games remaining.
"The effort's been great, the want-to's been there," Showalter said. "We're trying to win the next game, and that's in Detroit. I want these guys to get as far away from [baseball this week] as they can, take some pride in the way they've competed and knowing that it's still there for them."