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Schmuck: Orioles' strikeout record in Houston could be evidence of a larger problem

It is entirely understandable that the Orioles would like to write off their mortifying three-game series in Houston as some kind of strange anomaly that isn't going to follow them around the major leagues for the rest of this season.

Of course, it certainly was a strange anomaly. When you strike out more during one three-game series than any other big league team in, well, forever, that's a highly unusual occurrence. It's so unusual, in fact, that it cannot simply be written off as some kind of team-wide temporary insanity.

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The Orioles proved in Houston that they are not only vulnerable to a good curveball, which would not be that unusual. They proved that they are even more vulnerable to a bad curveball, which is proof that there is more going on here than just a hand-eye coordination issue.

Let's go back to the first inning of Thursday night's game, and keep in mind that the Orioles had struck out 37 times in the first two games of the series against the Houston Astros:

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Astros pitcher Lance McCullers, who came into the game with a 5.91 ERA in his first two starts, walked the first two batters by throwing just two strikes in his first 10 pitches. Chris Davis, who had just appeared on the Orioles' pregame show to talk about how he figured something out in his last at-bat the night before, came up next and swung at the second pitch, which missed hitting him on the foot by inches.

McCullers, who couldn't have found the strike zone with a GPS device at that point, proceeded to throw Davis two more balls, the last of which Davis also swung at and bounced out to first base.

This prompted the television crew to refer to that slow bouncer as "a productive out'' because it moved the runners up, but it was anything but productive. If Davis allows McCullers to struggle, he either walks to load the bases with no one out (which seemed pretty likely considering McCullers' obvious first-inning control problem) or gets a decent pitch to drive. Instead, the Orioles embarked on their third straight whiff-a-thon and McCullers took advantage to strike out 10 in just five innings.

By the time the Astros bullpen got through with the Orioles, they had struck out 15 times to set a major league record with 52 strikeouts in a three-game series.

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None of this is meant to focus particular attention on Davis, who actually has been more willing to take pitches than most of his teammates. The Houston series was full of at-bats just like that one in the first inning, but the fact that Davis, Adam Jones and even hot-hitting Matt Wieters were unable to recognize what they were up against after flailing through the first two games of the series speaks to something that goes beyond just strikeouts and walks.

Whether it was a case of simple stubbornness – which Jones seemed to articulate during postgame interviews Wednesday and Thursday night – or some kind of contagious brain cramp, most of the Orioles hitters seemed oblivious to what was going on and unwilling to make any kind of adjustment.

You can bet that the teams coming up on their dance card are going to make all sorts of adjustments. The advance scouts don't even need to send home any special bulletins.  When you strike out 19 times, 18 times and 15 times in consecutive games, word gets around all by itself.

Maybe this seems like piling on, since the Orioles still are 26-19 and remain near the top of the American League East standings, but the Astros – to the credit of their pitching staff – exposed something in the O's offensive psyche that needs to be corrected right now if they're going to continue to be a contending team.

Manager Buck Showalter conceded in Houston that his guys were pressing and the strikeout total snowballed, in part, because of that. That's logical enough, but the more troubling aspect of all this is the apparent attitude in the clubhouse that striking out a lot is just a benign byproduct of their overall offensive wonderfulness.

The Orioles are a power-oriented team that has the potential to set the all-time single-season home run record. That kind of team is also likely to rank among the league leaders in strikeouts, but that doesn't mean that striking out three times in a row with a runner in scoring position is OK. It's not.

For this team, situational hitting is a lot like the weather. Everybody talks about it and nobody seems to do anything about it.

Maybe this all will pass and the Orioles will get right back to showering the bleachers with home runs, but that will only happen when they get over themselves and accept the fact that there's nothing aggressive about swinging and missing pitches that are a foot out of the strike zone.

In Houston, they did not get outplayed. They got figured out, which is a far more dangerous proposition.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop 

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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