The Orioles woke up on the West Coast Tuesday staring at six straight loses if right-hander Chris Tillman doesn't get them out of their worst funk of the season.
Manager Buck Showalter admitted Monday that he's just hoping to get to the all-star break before having to reassess the starting rotation. The Orioles won't need a fifth starter until after the break.
Following the Orioles' 7-5 loss to the Dodgers Monday night, Tillman's turn is falling in line at a pivotal time, and he's been the stopper before, and he will have two starts before the break. He is scheduled to pitch in the Orioles' last game before the break on Sunday against the Los Angeles Angels.
But even Tillman has had his struggles of late. He hasn't recorded a quality start since June 14, and he's failed to go beyond five innings in each of his last three starts, posting an 8.59 ERA over that span. Opponents are hitting .339/.391/.645 against Tillman over his last three starts.
Still, the Orioles have won 14 of Tillman's 17 starts this season, including two of his last three starts, so even when he hasn't been his best, he's been able to keep the Orioles in the game.
"We weren't able to get it done today but show up tomorrow with Tillman on the mound," Orioles right-hander Yovani Gallardo said after Monday's game. "He's been throwing the ball great. Didn't happen today we have to prepare for tomorrow."
Gallardo struggled in Monday's series opener at Dodger Stadium. He was carrying some of his best stuff of the season, continuing to get an extra tick on both his four-seam and two-team sinking fastball and a little extra bite on his slider, but he was unable to harness those pitches.
Three walks hurt him, as did a pair of two-out run-scoring singles in a 34-pitch fourth inning. He also threw two wild pitches that inning that put three runners into scoring position.
The Orioles can complain all they want about a phantom balk call on reliever Odrisamer Depaigne that put the eventual tying run in scoring position in the sixth, but like Showalter said after the game, that wasn't why the Orioles lost on Monday.
Quality starts aren't the best gauge of a rotation's footing – crediting three earned runs over six innings the label of a successful start is fleeting – but the statistic works in extremes.
Through 82 games this season, the Orioles have just 32 quality starts, so they've received quality starts in just 39 percent of their games. That number is tied for third fewest in the American League heading into Tuesday.
The Orioles are the only AL division leader not among the leaders in quality starts. The Blue Jays, who enter Tuesday just 2 1/2 games back of the Orioles, lead the league with 55, followed by AL West leading Texas (49) and AL Central frontrunner Cleveland (47). The Red Sox, who are just two games back of the Orioles, rank tied for fifth with 41 quality starts.
The rotation's struggles have also exposed some of the bullpen's weaknesses. With Gallardo coming off that 34-pitch fourth inning, Showalter chose to go to right-hander Mychal Givens a little earlier than he'd like to. But with three right-handed hitters due up and the bottom of the Orioles order coming up in the next half inning, it was the right spot for Givens.
He retired the Dodgers on just 10 pitches, but the Orioles then pulled a reverse switch to avoid making the pitcher hit in the next inning, bringing in Hyun Soo Kim for Joey Rickard, who had just hit the previous inning.
More than anything, the Orioles wanted to get an inning out of Givens but also avoid him having to face back-to-back lefties in the next inning. That's why Showalter turned to Despaigne in the sixth.
Givens' numbers against lefties have improved slightly, but left-handers are still hitting .419 against him on the season.
It's obvious that with set-up man Darren O'Day out, the Orioles bullpen is stretched thin. Showalter is attempting to groom Despaigne for multiple-inning opportunities late in games – six of his seven appearances going into Monday were scoreless and he had shown the ability to get both righties and lefties out as a starter in Triple-A -- but that didn't work on Monday at Despaigne allowed three runs over 2 1/3 innings.
The balk call didn't help Despaigne or the Orioles, and neither did Corey Seager's chalk-lifting leadoff triple in the seventh that led to the go-ahead run, but Los Angeles also scored an insurance run off Despaigne in the eighth.
After giving Gallardo two early three-run leads, the Orioles offense seemed deflated late. The Dodgers bullpen finished the game retiring 18 of their last 20 hitters after the Orioles chased rookie left-hander Julio Urias from the game in the fourth.
"It's combination of everything," catcher Matt Wieters said. "There's never just one thing you can put your finger on. We had a couple plays we could have made tonight. We also had a couple at bats that we could have better at bats and I'm sure the pitchers will say there were a couple of pitches they wish they would have made better as well as some pitches I could have called better. Anytime you lose, it's a combination of things. There are team wins and team losses here. That's kind of how we've built our [team] and that's what we're going to stick with."