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Schmuck: With Orioles' resilience being tested, club nears a critical juncture

It seemed like a fairly simple equation two months ago. If the Orioles could maintain some semblance of competitive equilibrium while they waited for pitching ace Chris Tillman and closer Zach Britton to return from the disabled list, they would be positioned well to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in six years.

And, for a while, they did much more than that, rushing to the top of the standings in April and dominating their American League East rivals through nearly half of their divisional schedule.

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They're still holding their own and buying time, but the 2017 season is no longer young and the end of their injury uncertainty is not yet in sight. It should be pretty obvious to all that the short-term outlook is not good.

The return of Britton remains an open question and the Orioles have been dealing with lingering injuries to both Adam Jones and Manny Machado – the two position stars most critical to the club's chances of returning to the top of the standings and staying there.

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Jones is having a productive season, but has been playing with hip and ankle problems for the past two weeks. Though he doesn't care much for time off, he has had to concede the wisdom of occasionally resting his sore legs in deference to the 100-plus regular season games ahead.

Machado represents a more muddled picture after the wrist injury he suffered during the interleague series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He'll either return soon or go on the 10-day disabled list, but the bigger issue is the way he has struggled to match the terrific offensive numbers that made him a top-five AL MVP vote-getter the past two seasons.

His run-production stats remain representative. His .213/.289/.430 slash line is far from it. Those numbers are far lower than any of his four-plus previous major league seasons and there is no clear explanation for it. Could it be a post-World Baseball Classic malaise, aggravated by the stress generated during the feud with the Boston Red Sox?

The only thing certain is that the Orioles need Jones and Machado to be in the position they hope to be in at the end of the regular season.

That's truer than ever, considering the current state of the pitching staff. Tillman is still struggling to find himself after months of rehabilitating his shoulder and now reliever Darren O'Day has been placed on the disabled list with shoulder soreness.

The impact of Britton's absence has rippled through the entire pitching staff, putting direct pressure on the bullpen and putting extra weight on the young shoulders of Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, who were already being counted on heavily to stabilize the rotation.

Gausman, in particular, has struggled with his command and has a highly uncharacteristic 1.788 WHIP to prove it. He seems to have emerged from an ugly four-week struggle, during which his ERA climbed as high as 7.55. But he has won just once in his past five starts.

Bundy has been terrific, surrendering more than three earned runs just once all year while pitching through the sixth inning in 12 of his 13 starts.

That's all good, but he's on pace right now to pitch nearly 210 innings, which calls into question just how much manager Buck Showalter will be forced to limit Bundy's innings later in the season to keep him healthy and available for the stretch run.

Showalter has been a wizard at steering the Orioles through similar uncertainty in the past, so it would be foolhardy to discount his ability to weather another stormy summer. It's just that there comes a time when it's fair to wonder how long the Orioles can keep it together while so many aspects of the team seem to be coming apart.

This is the first time in quite a while that the defense has developed cracks in its dependability, and the loss of Machado even for a matter of days certainly doesn't help. Every key member of the bullpen has struggled at some point since Britton went down. And the Orioles look like they might be teetering on the brink of a difficult summer.

The Orioles have been known throughout the Showalter-Dan Duquette era for their resilience, which is being sorely tested. They have bought a lot of time, but there is no way of knowing how much more time they need to purchase.

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The alternative isn't pretty, because we're now only a few weeks from the point when teams have to decide whether they're in it for the duration or need to reposition themselves for the future.

Duquette isn't likely to break up the ballclub, but the Orioles have entered a pivotal juncture in the season. The risk of a midseason meltdown appears to be higher than at any point in the past five seasons.

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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