As the Oriolespacked up for their final road trip of a surprising first half, the lingering question is what to make of this club?
Is it the second-place squad in the American League East that just acquired a likely Hall of Famer for a pennant push?
Or is it an injured and undermanned upstart that simply hit its peak and now is beginning to slide back to reality after a disappointing homestand that culminated with a 6-2 loss to the previously scuffling Cleveland Indians?
Maybe it's a little bit of both, but on the afternoon in which the Orioles learned they would send multiple players to the annual All-Star Gamefor the first time since 2005, the team again resembled the also-rans that have been so prominent at Camden Yards in the last decade-plus.
The Orioles (42-36) have dropped six of nine on the homestand, nine of their past 12 and three of four to the Indians (40-38), who had been in a five-game free fall before soaring this weekend.
The root problem for the Orioles is a sudden inability for their starters to get outs and go deep into games. In their past six contests, the Orioles rotation has lasted just 26 innings, allowed 48 hits and has posted an 11.42 ERA.
The latest victim was Brian Matusz (5-10), who served up two homers and five runs (four earned) in just four-plus innings in what was his fifth straight loss. In those five starts, which span just 21 1/3 innings, Matusz has allowed 40 hits, 13 walks and 20 earned runs – posting an 8.44 ERA. He allowed seven hits and three walks Sunday and pumped his season ERA to 5.42. The leadoff hitter reached base in four of Matusz's five innings.
Things have declined so far for the club's one-time future ace – who had appeared to have turned around his season with a 4-2 May – that when Orioles manager Buck Showalter walked to the mound to remove his pitcher with two runners on and no outs in the fifth, a faction of the announced crowd of 16,689 cheered. And when the 25-year-old walked to the dugout he was showered with boos.
Perhaps what makes this stretch particularly ugly for the Orioles – and difficult to stomach for their fans -- is what the Indians were able to do in this series.
Heading into Thursday, Cleveland was 5-16 against left-handed starters and had a .216 average versus all southpaws, tied for the worst mark in the majors. They faced three Orioles left-handed starters in the series, and won all three games while scoring 15 earned runs in 14 innings against the trio of Matusz, Dana Eveland andWei-Yin Chen.
The Indians hit .322 against those three Orioles starters and overall outscored them 32-18 in the four-game series. The Orioles' only win was started by Jake Arrieta.
Baltimore's offense deserves an assist in the futility Sunday, managing just five hits and two runs (one earned) while striking out seven times in seven innings against Cleveland's Justin Masterson (5-7).
The Orioles didn't get a hit against Masterson until Ryan Flaherty's bloop single with two outs in the fifth. They only got one more hit after Masterson left the game.
There was one moment to remember Sunday for the Orioles. Jim Thome, the 41-year-old veteran designated hitter whom the Orioles acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday, made his club debut.
He received a standing ovation in his first at-bat, but ultimately went hitless with one strikeout in four trips to the plate.
Another newcomer, rookie Miguel Gonzalez, who was recalled Sunday for his second stint with the Orioles, at least kept the game close. The right-hander threw 4 1/3 innings of relief of Matusz, allowing one run on four hits and three walks while fanning five.