After four deflating games against the Boston Red Sox this week at Camden Yards, it's obvious that the Orioles and the American League East leaders are on different playing fields.
Things can change, but they must do so in a hurry for the Orioles to avoid a disappointing end to this season. If the four-game home sweep the Orioles suffered this week was any indication, the gap between the Red Sox and the Orioles is as wide as the seven games in the division standings that now separate them following Thursday's 5-3 loss.
The defeat, combined with the Detroit Tigers' doubleheader sweep in Minnesota, knocked the Orioles out of the second American League wild-card spot by a half-game with nine regular-season games left to play, leaving them among a muddled group of four teams within three games of the final playoff position.
"I think you've got be realistic about where we are at this point after losing four," closer Zach Britton said. "It's kind of time to light a fire under our butt because those other teams playing for the wild card are right there. You kind of need to look over your shoulder if you want to live in reality. You can't just assume if we lose another game here and there it's OK. We need to find a way to win games. It's plain and simple."
It was just a week ago when the Orioles returned home from their most successful road trip of the season just one game back of the Red Sox after right-hander Kevin Gausman's eight-inning scoreless gem sealed a series win at Fenway Park.
The Orioles' world has turned since then. Any hopes of a division title are all but officially out of grasp as the focus turns to the wild card. At the beginning of this week, before the Red Sox arrived at Camden Yards for four games, these Orioles (82-71) controlled their own fate. Now, after being swept, they are no longer the hunted, instead the hunters.
Now, the Orioles must change their fortunes with three games this weekend against an Arizona Diamondbacks team that is 24 games under .500 before a six-game road trip to Toronto and New York, where the Orioles are a combined 4-10.
"Believe it or not, we're still in the hunt for the playoffs," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "The way people make it seem sometimes it feels like we're 40 games under .500. That's not the case. Disappointing? Absolutely.But we didn't put the last nail in our own coffin or anything.
"We're gonna show up, we're gonna give the D-backs everything we have the next three games. If we win three in a row, now we're back maybe where we want to be. We still control our own destiny and that's the main thing. Disappointing to lose four in a row? Sure. But nobody's feeling sorry for us, or nobody's hanging their head around here."
It took a rookie making his second major league start to provide the offensive spark the Orioles desperately needed Thursday night against the Red Sox. With one swing, Trey Mancini gave the Orioles more runs than they scored in any of their previous five games, his three-run homer off Red Sox left-hander David Price tying the score at 3 in the third inning. Mancini became the first player in club history to homer in each of his first two major league starts, and the first to homer for each of his first two major league hits.
It was the injection of life an Orioles team that is seemingly on its way to a slow death needed.
Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman, who had been the team's most reliable starter, and a stopper when it found itself in a rut, lasted just 1 2/3 innings for his shortest start of the season.
Making his third start since returning from a shoulder injury, Tillman allowed eight of the 13 batters he faced to reach base on four singles, three walks and a triple.
Tillman's struggles mirrored that of the three previous starters of the series. Dylan Bundy, Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez battled through long innings and deep pitch counts early on while the Red Sox arms were a model of pitch efficiency, helped by an overly aggressive Orioles lineup.
Red Sox starters averaged 7 1/3 innings over the four-game series – highlighted by Cy Young front-runner Rick Porcello's 89-pitch complete game -- while the Orioles rotation averaged less than 4 2/3 frames. The ERAs of the teams' rotations were equally disparate this series. Boston's starters posted a 2.45 ERA, while the Orioles starters owned a 6.38 ERA.
"I think it's a combination, but it's more them," Showalter said. "The more I'm around the game, the more I'm reminded that it's about command of the fastball. When you can get the baseball where guys guide it, it's a challenge. That's one of the things. [Gausman] and Dylan have a future, because they can command the fastball most times. They're only going to get better at it.
"You watch a guy like Price and Porcello, what do they have in common? They command the fastball. He's a four-pitch mix. Both of those guys. So when you command the fastball, you're never able to box one out. That makes it tough on major league hitters. And we're not on top of our game offensively right now, but it could change in one day."
The Orioles, who were 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position in the series, scored just five runs in their first three games against the Red Sox before Mancini's home run Thursday. Add Mancini's leadoff double in the sixth, and he had the only hit off Price after the third inning.
How the Orioles stranded Mancini at second in the sixth was a microcosm of the series. After Mancini went the other way on a Price changeup – the same pitch he hit into the left-field stands two innings earlier – for a stand-up double down the right-field line, the Orioles were unable to score the tying run.
Second baseman Jonathan Schoop was unable to hit the ball to the right side to advance Mancini to third, grounding out to third instead. Shortstop J.J. Hardy then flied out to center field and left fielder Drew Stubbs struck out.
Long reliever Vance Worley gave the Orioles much-needed length after Tillman's early exit, but allowed a two-out RBI single to rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi in the fifth inning. Hanley Ramirez's solo homer off left-hander Donnie Hart in the seventh added extra insurance the Red Sox wouldn't need.
"But when you consider the competition, we knew from spring training [that] Boston was capable of this type of baseball," Showalter said. "Unfortunately the timing has been tough. There's not a huge margin, but at this level of play, things can snowball one way or the other. And people look at the big picture of it, and rightfully so, and it looks tough. But I don't get surprised by anything. I don't live in that world, try not to anyway."