SEATTLE — Riding high on a seven-game winning streak, the Orioles had their rotation line up this week so that their two top starters, Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman, would open their series in Seattle and possibly keep that momentum going.
That both of their starts ended in losses, courtesy of some Orioles-esque home run hitting by the host Mariners, brings into focus the precarious faith in the Orioles' starting pitching as they try to salvage the middle portion of one of their most difficult road trips all season.
With an offense that looked irrepressible in June showing signs of slowing rather quickly, it's the rotation that could determine whether the Orioles return home in five games with the division lead intact.
"Obviously, on paper, everybody says that's what you have to have, but we've done well where we are," manager Buck Showalter said. "We all know that conventionality says it's tough to continue to go down that road, but our guys have always figured out a way to get it done. … The game doesn't always follow some conventional line. We've kind of skirted with conventionality for quite some time now. Not just this season, but through the years."
Showalter is referring to a team whose strengths are hitting home runs and shutting the door when starters deliver the bullpen a lead. A starting rotation with a 4.94 ERA is not part of that equation.
On Thursday, Tillman spent five innings trying to harness his off-speed pitches, leaving only after Mariners right-hander Seth Smith hit a slider into the right-field stands to put his team up 4-0.
Gausman struck out seven batters and walked none Friday, but Seattle kept fouling off pitches and connected on two that left the ballpark, the difference in the game. Tillman and Gausman remain the only Orioles starters with ERAs under 4.0, and it will be on Tyler Wilson and Ubaldo Jimenez to reverse the rotation's fortunes.
Wilson, who has a 4.50 ERA overall and a 4.89 ERA as a starter, has had varying success in pitching to contact and trying to limit damage when runners do get on. That could prove challenging today in spacious Safeco Field, against a Mariners lineup that scored five runs off Wilson in six innings earlier this year.
Jimenez returned to the rotation, after being shuffled out because of ineffectiveness, following two positive results against a floundering San Diego Padres team, striking out a dozen with eight walks while allowing three runs in 11 innings. His ERA was 6.89 when he lost his rotation spot, and is down to 6.63. He'll start Sunday.
Combine that with the fact that the Orioles aren't sure what they have in Yovani Gallardo yet, and the uncertainty surrounding their rotation is just one or two losses from returning to the forefront.
"Chris has won 10 ballgames for us," Showalter said. "Gallardo's finally back and throwing the ball well. [Gausman] is going to be there for us. He's equipped to go all the way through the season, as long as it'll take us. We've got some other things we're kind of waiting on, seeing them develop. Tyler's been OK, and Ubaldo's had two good outings in a row, so we're hoping that continues. … We just don't have — Gallardo's got a track record, [Tillman has] got a track record somewhat, but we've got two or three guys trying to develop a track record, so you don't know where it's going to take you. But we'll have a good seat to watch it. The reinforcements and the what-ifs are here. They're not coming from somewhere else."