It was a week ago Wednesday night that the Orioles scored an uplifting victory over the Boston Red Sox and seemed focused on winning the American League East title.
Seven days later, they seem determined to play their way out of the postseason entirely.
The Red Sox scored five runs in a disastrous sixth inning and moved to the threshold of a deflating four-game sweep at Camden Yards with a 5-1 victory Wednesday. The loss dropped the Orioles six games out of first place and badly exposed to the group of teams behind them that are trying to scratch their way into the two wild-card playoff slots.
The only question is whether Chris Tillman can salvage the final game of the series and give the Orioles (82-70) a chance to regain their equilibrium during the forthcoming interleague series against the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks.
Manager Buck Showalter made it clear that he has not lost any confidence in a team that still is in position — however precarious — to achieve its goals.
"I'm very proud of these guys," he said. "I've got a long memory. They'll get it going here. If we can get in [the playoffs], I feel real good about this group. That's what we're trying to do."
But nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted … not after Chris Davis scooped up a soft bouncer in the sixth inning and made an inexplicable two-run throwing error to keep the dominoes tumbling hard in the wrong direction.
To that point, the Orioles were scuffling along with a 1-0 lead after starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez pulled a couple of great escapes against the relentless Boston offense. The Red Sox (88-64) had runners all over the place through the first five innings, but were cruising on karma. Four of their six hits were either infield roll-outs or soft fly balls and the other five base runners came on four walks and a catcher's-interference call. Even the decisive swing by catcher Sandy Leon was just a slow bouncer that should have ended the inning with the Orioles still ahead.
Maybe it's all just meant to be for the Red Sox, who parlayed a similarly odd defensive mess-up by New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia into an unlikely victory Sunday. Both times the error was followed by a game-breaking home run — this time a three-run shot to the flag court by No. 9 hitter Andrew Benintendi. How galling is that?
"It's obviously not how we planned this series going," said reliever Brad Brach, who gave up that home run after pitching well enough to get out of the inning. "We didn't plan on losing the first three, but I think everybody's going to tell you we need to just focus on tomorrow and forget about tonight. It is what it is. We lost. It's over now. We've just got to be ready to go tomorrow. That's got to be our mindset from here on out. Every day, it's just got to be a new season and start over tomorrow."
The Sox won for the seventh straight time and the Orioles dropped to 2-5 on the homestand everyone hoped would propel them into the final-week sprint with the Toronto Blue Jays and Red Sox for the chance to skip the wild-card round and open in the Division Series.
Instead, the Orioles' power-packed offense has taken much of the past week off and they now have to contend with the Houston Astros, who have crept to within a game of the second wild-card berth, and the Detroit Tigers, who could have sneaked even closer with a victory in Minnesota but their game was postponed.
The Orioles had every right to be frustrated, but it's not like they were cruising to victory or anything when the wheels came off. They've now built a dubious string of five games in which they've scored two runs or fewer, so it probably was just a matter of time before the Red Sox continued their march to the division title.
"Our guys are really pushing," Showalter said. "Sometimes you can almost want something too much and you can't take that away from them. The 'want-to' is always there for our guys. Now, it can be a … deterrent. You get into a situation like this where they know what's going on with the math of the season, so it's tough to say, 'Don't care.'"
Ubaldo gets standing 'O'
Jimenez walked off the mound to a standing ovation from the crowd of 20,865, though he lasted only 51/3 innings and left with the Orioles in a two-on, one-out jam. He gave up just four hits and left with a zero still on the scoreboard, but would be charged with two of the five runs the Red Sox would go on to score in the sixth. He also would be charged with the loss and his record fell to 7-12.
Brach came on in relief of Jimenez and immediately got into further trouble through no fault of his own. Aaron Hill hit a perfectly placed nubber in front of home plate and beat it out to load the bases. Brach got two strikes on Leon before getting another poorly hit grounder, which turned the game around. He should have been sitting in the dugout when Benintendi homered, but it has been that kind of week.
Red Sox rolling in good fortune
The Red Sox are proving that hitting the ball hard might be overrated. They only had one solid hit before the game-breaking home run and even that was simply a hard grounder through the infield. The Sox also had a handful of broken-bat and jam-shot singles Tuesday night, but they all count, especially when they keep innings alive until somebody goes deep.