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What went wrong: Starting rotation drops off after standout 2014

Baltimore Orioles beat writer Eduardo Encina talks about, 'what went wrong' with this year's Orioles pitching staff. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)

Editor's note: One year after the Orioles won 96 games and their first American League East title since 1997, they can finish no better than .500 and will miss the postseason. This week, The Baltimore Sun is breaking down what went wrong in 2015 and how to fix it.

Manager Buck Showalter uses a favorite adage when asked to gauge the Orioles' momentum — it's only as good as the next day's starting pitcher.

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That was true last season, when the Orioles rotation posted a remarkable 2.98 ERA after the All-Star break, emerging as the biggest strength down the stretch as the club won its first division title in 17 years. But as the Orioles failed to meet high expectations this season, the dramatic decline of the team's starting pitchers might be the biggest disappointment in 2015.

"We haven't finished off some hitters in [favorable] counts like we did last year, with the same people and the same leadership," Showalter said. "It's not from a lack of trying. … Trying to figure out pitching is the riddle that everyone does. Everybody tries to develop this system where they have this many of innings or something like that. There's no solution to the riddle. You're always trying to figure out."

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Pitching coach Dave Wallace, who is in his second season with the Orioles, made two points: The starters failed to consistently get deep into games, and they fell victim to the big inning too often. That is illustrated by the Orioles' quality-start percentage (.440), which entered Friday ranked 23rd in baseball and 13th among 15 American League teams.

"We fight like hell to make every pitch we can and I know I speak for the whole rotation on this — we're a group of competitive guys and it's not fun when you're not doing it," right-hander Chris Tillman said. "But we've all worked together and we've tried to figure it out, and I think everyone on the staff has had this stint where they had it going and something happened to kind of set you back. That's an unfortunate thing and there's nothing you can do about that. It's baseball. No one is going to feel sorry for you."

The starters' struggles begin with right-hander Bud Norris, a 15-game winner last season who struggled from his first start of spring training. Norris lost four of his first five decisions before going on the disabled list for nearly a month with bronchitis, which caused him to lose 13 pounds. Norris pitched better once he returned but was bumped from the rotation in favor of right-hander Kevin Gausman. An attempt to have Norris find himself in the bullpen failed and he was released in early August.

"Bud Norris was never himself," Wallace said. "That was a big part of it. Right, wrong or indifferent, you feel like you're a failure if you couldn't help him. That didn't really work out. He was a guy who won 15 games for us in 2014, a veteran guy. That was probably as disappointing as anything."

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However, the rotation's decline can't be pinned on Norris alone. Orioles starters went into Friday with a 4.98 ERA in the second half of the season — well after Norris lost his rotation spot — compared with a 4.20 mark in the first half with Norris included. Opposing batters had hit .274 against the Orioles starters in the second half, 37 points higher than after the break last season.

Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen has been the club's most consistent starter with 19 quality starts in his first 30 outings (63.3 percent), but right-handers Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and Ubaldo Jimenez battled with consistency, especially in the first half of the year. Tillman and Gonzalez both battled physical ailments in the second half.

Tillman, who was coming off back-to-back 200-inning seasons and won 29 games in that span, struggled to overcome an ankle injury he suffered in late July, posting a 6.50 ERA after that setback. But Wallace said Tillman pitched much better than indicated.

"There's a lot of things that happen during the course of games — swinging base hits, ground balls through the hole, bloopers that fall in, then one big pop," Wallace said. "I think [Tillman is] the guy who the perception is his year wasn't quite as good as last year. And it probably wasn't quite, but he's probably the guy most affected by public perception. I think he really pitched better than it appears."

One scout said the Orioles' problem is that they don't have legitimate front-line starters, a case that has been made consistently dating to Mike Mussina's departure after the 2000 season.

"Really, there's no legitimate stopper," said one National League scout who followed the Orioles this season. "There's no legitimate No. 1 or 2; more 3s, 4s and 5s. Every night they have to go out there and battle when they're facing the opponent's No. 1s and 2s when you're throwing 3s, 4s and 5s."

Statistically, the Orioles bullpen has performed close to the same level as last season. Plus, setup man Darren O'Day and closer Zach Britton both enjoyed All-Star seasons. The relievers' ERA entered Friday just a tad higher (3.23) than in 2014 (3.10), ranking fourth in the AL this season after finishing third a year ago.

The Orioles bullpen also accounted for 29 wins through 159 games, which tied for most in the AL. Last year, the relievers had 28 wins, third most in the AL. That statistic also accounts for games in which the bullpen might have blown a late lead but earned the victory.

The Orioles also have converted a slightly better percentage of save opportunities this season, 73.7 percent (42 of 57) after Thursday's win, compared with last year's 73.6 percent (53 of 72).

The bullpen did face an abrupt transition when the Orioles dealt veteran right-hander Tommy Hunter to the Chicago Cubs at the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. Not only did the move alter how the Orioles spread out the workload of O'Day and Britton, but it also pushed right-hander Brad Brach and rookie right-hander Mychal Givens into late-inning roles.

Moving forward, the Orioles could lose their most consistent starter (Chen) and one of their best bullpen arms (O'Day) in free agency.

Wallace is confident that Gausman, who has shown flashes of brilliance, can become a front-line starter.

"You think about it and he only has [42] starts in the big leagues, and it probably takes 90 to 100 to really learn how to pitch," Wallace said.

But that puts a lot of pressure on Gausman to take a big step next season. So the Orioles hope Tillman returns to form and Jimenez and Gonzalez rebound in 2016. They could jump into the free-agent waters to pursue big-ticket pitchers such as David Price, Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke or Jordan Zimmermann. But that's highly unlikely.

Both of the club's top pitching prospects, Dylan Bundy and Hunter Harvey, were expected to be options to contribute at the major league level, but both battled through injuries and weren't available this season.

"We need to build depth in the bullpen, depth in the rotation," Wallace said. "We're short right now."

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One of Showalter's highest priorities is re-signing Wallace, who along with bullpen coach Dom Chiti has the unabashed support of the pitching staff. When asked about his future with the club, Wallace, who turned 68 last month and has a year-to-year contract, said he'd think about that when the season is over.

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Tillman is confident this year's rotation can turn it around in 2016.

"I think everyone knows what all of our starters are capable of," Tillman said. "It's no secret. The others teams know it. The fans know it. You know it. I know it. … It's getting to that point. It's not gone. It's there. We just need to get on a roll and I feel like we can do it. No excuses on my part. I pitched pretty crappy for a long time this year and I have to be better. It stinks and it's almost embarrassing. But we're fighting."

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