The Orioles have the makings of an enticing playoff starting rotation, something every contender needs to play deep into October. But first they have to get there, and a pair of struggling veteran starters are unsteadying their chase for the postseason.
One day after getting one of their best outings from a starter this season — right-hander Kevin Gausman held the division-leading Boston Red Sox, the best hitting team in the American League, scoreless over eight innings — the Orioles received an ugly outing from right-hander Yovani Gallardo against the worst-hitting team in the AL.
The Orioles lost, 7-6 ,to the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday in missing an opportunity they ended up paying for. As the Orioles clubhouse emptied following Thursday's game, the Boston Red Sox rallied from down three in the ninth inning for a 7-5 walk-off win over the New York Yankees, dropping the Orioles to two games back of the AL East leaders.
The front end of the Orioles starting rotation is coming into form as the team hits the stretch run. Gausman is reaching new levels, posting a 0.82 ERA over his past five starts. Despite some recent control hiccups and continuing pitch-count limit, right-hander Dylan Bundy's transition to starting has gone well. The renewed health of right-hander Chris Tillman, who tossed a quality start in his first game back from the disabled list Sunday, gives the team its veteran anchor back. And right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez's recovery from his demotion to the bullpen has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises of the second half of the season.
In a postseason series, four starters are really all a team needs. But in the middle of a tight race for both the AL East and the AL wild cards, the Orioles must find a way to overcome a disturbing trend of short starts from Gallardo and continued struggles from left-hander Wade Miley for them to earn a playoff spot.
"We're not the only ones," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of the team's inability to build momentum. "It's part of it. I've said it a lot. Just because someone pitches well, doesn't mean it's going to always carry over. I'm really happy how much they want to do well, but it sometimes doesn't translate out there. It hasn't happened lately with Yovani, but it's frustrating for him. It really is."
Against a Rays team that entered Thursday hitting just .245 collectively, Gallardo lasted just 3 1/3 innings, allowing six runs on seven hits and two walks. It marked the second time in Gallardo's past four starts that he failed to make it out of the fourth inning. On Aug. 26, Gallardo lasted a season-low 1 1/3 innings, yielding eight runs (seven earned) in a 14-4 loss to the Yankees.
Miley's struggles — he has an 8.41 ERA in eight starts for the Orioles — might be more glaring because he was acquired at the nonwaiver trade deadline to bolster a beleaguered rotation. Miley and Gallardo are executive vice president Dan Duquette's two most recent rotation acquisitions.
Miley, who is in line to make his next start Sunday against the Rays, lasted just 1 1/3 innings in his most recent start Monday in Boston, pulled after letting nine of the 12 batters he faced reach base. He has failed to get out of the second inning in two of his past five outings. Miley was shelled for six runs on six hits over 1 2/3 innings against the Houston Astros on Aug. 19, after his offense spotted him with four homers in the first inning.
The Orioles' inconsistent pitching has placed them on a momentum merry-go-round. In 16 starts made by Gallardo and Miley since Aug. 1, the Orioles are 4-12. They are 17-9 in games started by Gausman, Bundy, Tillman and Jimenez over that same time.
On Thursday, the Orioles — riding high coming home for an 11-game homestand after one of their best wins of the season — had the opportunity to build off a 6-3 road trip. Instead, their comeback fell just short, stranding the tying run on third base with two opportunities to score in the ninth.
Gallardo appeared rusty Thursday. When Tillman's return Sunday allotted the Orioles six starting options, Gallardo's turn through the rotation was skipped, for no other apparent reason than the fact that he struggled against the Red Sox in his career.
Gallardo didn't use the time off as an excuse even though he hadn't pitched this season with more than five days' rest before Thursday. But he struggled from the start after eight days off.
"It's tough," Gallardo said. "I've been feeling good. I've been feeling good my past few starts, and I was just a little off. A little off today. I don't know what it was, the time off or whatever reason. There's no excuses. I still have to go out there and do my job whenever my name is called upon, whether it's five, six, seven days or whatever the reason is. I wasn't able to do that.
"It's just one of those things that I've got to find a way whenever I'm going to go out there and do everything that I can whenever my name is called upon to go out there and pitch. You know, it's frustrating. It's frustrating for sure. I've been feeling really good. I was feeling really good coming into this start today. It just wasn't there. The command wasn't there. For whatever reason it was, it can't happen."
Gallardo found himself in trouble early. He walked the first two batters he faced, throwing balls on eight of his first 11 pitches, and then allowed a three-run homer to Evan Longoria on a first-pitch cutter. It was the fourth straight start that he has allowed a home run in the first inning. Gallardo has a 9.00 ERA in the opening frame this season and has allowed 10 more runs in the first through 21 starts than he has in any other inning.
"Just falling behind guys," catcher Matt Wieters said. "That's the No. 1 thing, can't start the game walking the first two guys and then making the mistake there to the No. 3-hole hitter. It's never a good start. Every time you make a mistake to a hitter like that, he's going to make you pay."
The Orioles provided Gallardo with a one-run lead after one inning, but he couldn't hold that, allowing three more runs — one each in the second, third and fourth innings — on six hits, including three doubles.
"It wasn't easy today," Gallardo said. "Giving up those three runs in the first inning and then the guys coming back and scoring four. I've got to find a way. I've got to find a way to put up zeros up on the board and keep the score right where it's at, and I wasn't able to do that."