As the Orioles packed up for their final road trip of a surprising first half Sunday evening, left-hander Brian Matusz was left behind, the obvious casualty of a club — and a starting rotation — that is seemingly wilting as the summer progresses.
Matusz, in a funk for his past five starts, secured a trip to Triple-A Norfolk by failing to get through the fifth in a 6-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians — the Orioles' ninth defeat in their past 12 games.
"In my last five, six outings [I] just haven't been getting the job done," said Matusz, moments after a 15-minute, closed-door meeting with Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "Today was just really inconsistent … It's killing the bullpen. It's making it tough, so moves have to be made. I have to go down and get better."
Things have declined so far for the club's one-time future ace — who appeared to be turning around his season with a 4-2 record in May — that when Showalter walked to the mound to remove Matusz 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.
"Right now, my confidence isn't there because I haven't been winning ballgames," said Matusz, who has lost five straight and is 6-19 in the last season and a half. "I know I have the stuff, but I just have to put it all together."
Suddenly, as the All-Star break looms one week away, the Orioles (42-36) are steamrolling toward an identity crisis.
They are in second place in the American League East and just acquired a likely Hall of Famer — Jim Thome — for a prospective pennant push. They are also injured and undermanned.
Maybe they are a little bit of both, but on the afternoon in which the Orioles learned they would send multiple players to the All-Star Game for 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 Indians (40-38), who had dropped five straight before coming to Baltimore, outscored the Orioles 32-18 while winning three of four.
"We're fine," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who had two of the club's six hits Sunday. "We are playing our [butts] off. These things happen. We are not playing our best baseball. But we are still in it. We are not pushing ourselves out of it."
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.
Matusz (5-10) is the most alarming example of a rotation gone wrong. He served up two homers and five runs (four earned) in just four-plus innings. In his past five starts, spanning just 21 1/3 innings, Matusz has allowed 40 hits, 13 walks and 20 earned runs for an 8.44 ERA.
"He's not the only guy that's had some struggles," Showalter said. "I don't want to hang it all on Brian. We've had some other people that, just statistically looking at it, you know they've got to be better."
Matusz, whose ERA climbed to 5.42 while tying the league lead in losses, becomes the second member of the rotation to be sent down in less than 24 hours. Tommy Hunter, who was 3-4 with a 6.11 ERA in 15 games (13 starts) was sent to Norfolk on Saturday night. Jake Arrieta and Dana Eveland, who made a spot start Saturday, are clinging to tenuous rotation slots.
"Without stating the obvious, what's going on is not good enough. It's not good enough," Showalter said. "I got it. They got it, too. Nobody knows better than Brian and nobody knows better than Dana and Jake and some of the other guys. It's a competitive place for you, me. We have to bring what we need to bring."
For now, the Orioles will recall a reliever to take Matusz's space on the roster and provide more depth in the bullpen, especially with Miguel Gonzalez, who was promoted Sunday and forced to go 4 1/3 innings in relief of Matusz.
"I think the team needs better pitching and I believe that Brian can pitch better," said Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette. "With a couple adjustments that we can help him make at Triple-A, we should be able to get him back on track."
But rotation changes seem impending, with both lefty Zach Britton and Chris Tillman available at Norfolk. Duquette said he would look internally first for solutions to the rotation — though he said Gonzalez wasn't one right now — before seriously exploring outside alternatives.
"We do have some experienced pitchers at Triple-A that we hope can help us at some point, and you know they are," Duquette said. "They're Tillman and Zach Britton, and at some point we hope that they're ready to come up and help us in the rotation."
Perhaps what makes this stretch particularly ugly for the Orioles 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, Eveland andWei-Yin Chen.
The Indians hit .322 against those three Orioles' starters, with their only win started by righty Arrieta.
"They're such a good offensive team, if you look at some of their splits through their minor leagues and major leagues, [struggling versus lefties] is not something that should continue, [but] unfortunately it didn't here," Showalter said. "You couple that with us not pitching well, it doesn't matter if you are left-handed, right-handed or throwing them between your legs. If you put [pitches] where we are throwing some of them, you are going to get hurt."
Baltimore's offense deserves an assist in the futility Sunday, scoring just 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. 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.
Thome's presence in the lineup is supposed to signal that the Orioles are making a run for the 2012 playoffs and will make the improvements necessary to get there. But the performance on the field recently suggests otherwise.
"We're not in any trouble," Jones said. "[The media] are blowing it up and making it seem like we [stink]. We're just not playing the best baseball we have. We'll be fine."