A five-run offensive explosion in the ninth inning Saturday that made a nail-biter out of a blowout didn't mask the most pertinent question surrounding the 2014 Orioles:
Will the starting pitching do enough to keep them in contention throughout the summer months?
Five games in — through one turn of the rotation — the answer isn't promising.
"We are better than we've shown. We know what kind of five-man staff we have and we are going to build off each other and go," said Orioles right-hander Bud Norris. "We are just trying to get in the win column and go from there."
Norris lasted just five innings in his first start of the season as the Orioles lost, 7-6, on Saturday to the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. It was the club's fourth consecutive defeat since a 2-1 victory against the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day at Camden Yards.
The Orioles (1-4) were seemingly out of the game by the fifth when Torii Hunter hit a two-run homer against Norris (0-1). Two innings earlier, Hunter had a three-run double. He became the first player to have five or more RBIs in one game against the Orioles since Boston's Shane Victorino on Aug. 27, 2013.
Detroit (4-0) scored two more runs against reliever Brian Matusz in the sixth and was on its way to a second straight laugher, thanks in part to an excellent performance by Tigers starter Rick Porcello (one run in 62/3 innings).
But in the ninth, against lefty Phil Coke, righty Al Alburquerque and closer Joe Nathan, the Orioles sent 10 batters to the plate, scoring five runs on five hits, a walk and an error.
They had the tying run at second and the potential go-ahead run at first base with one out, but Nathan struck out Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis hit a game-ending fly to left.
"We scored six — that should be enough to win," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "It wasn't."
Showalter conceded that the club is a little frustrated right now with the state of its rotation, which was 12th of 15 American League teams in starters ERA last season, but was expected to step up in 2014.
Through one full turn, the starters are 0-4 with a 7.56 ERA while allowing 42 hits in 25 innings. Newcomer Ubaldo Jimenez is the only one to have completed six innings. As a group, the rotation has averaged five innings per start.
"Our guys are a little frustrated right now. They know we are better than this," Showalter said. "We said all along, if we are getting four or five innings out of our starters, it's going to really put some challenges up for us."
The Orioles are without a quality start — defined as six innings or more with three runs or fewer allowed in 2014.
"You guys [the media] are looking at that more than we are," Norris said. "We are all trying to pick up off each other and just get this thing going. We aren't necessarily worried about the numbers right now; we want to help our team and get in the win column. That's the No. 1 priority. And I think we can and are going to soon."
Norris threw a perfect first inning and had faced the minimum number of Tigers through two before giving up three singles and Hunter's double in the third. Norris allowed nine hits and walked none, but struck out only two batters while throwing an inefficient 103 pitches.
"He's got to economize his pitches a little bit better. He got some counts in his favor and just couldn't finish anybody off," Showalter said. "There were a lot of right-handed hitters in the lineup. I was expecting Bud to have a little deeper outing today. But it was his first one, so he'll get better."
That's been the recurring theme with the Orioles in their last four games. They'll get better — both the offense and the pitching. Heading into Saturday's ninth inning, though, both facets were thoroughly underwhelming.
The staff had combined to throw four clean innings in five games. And the offense had just seven extra-base hits in 43 innings before getting two in the ninth Saturday. In the first two games in Detroit, the Orioles scored all 10 of their runs in the first and ninth innings.
"I think innings two through eight we need to figure something out," said center fielder Adam Jones. "One and nine, we are swinging the bats well, but I think two through eight, [on Sunday] those innings will be ours."
On Sunday, the Orioles have the difficult task of facing one of baseball's best pitchers, Justin Verlander. The former American League Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player is 8-1 with a 3.26 ERA in 13 games against the Orioles in his career.
The Orioles' best pitcher from a year ago, Chris Tillman, will take the mound against Verlander. The right-hander allowed just one run to the Boston Red Sox on Opening Day, but he also lasted just five innings.
Even if the Orioles' ballyhooed batters were awakened by the five-run ninth Saturday, they still need to get quality pitching if they expect to make a postseason run. But it's way too early to panic about that now, Jones said.
"We got a lot of games to play," Jones said. "There are grown men in here; we are going to make the adjustment."