Two straight road wins entering All-Star break lift Orioles out of cellar, provide reason for hope

Orioles players and coaches parted ways for three days after their 11-5 win over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, quickly vacating the visiting clubhouse of Target Field to all corners of the country for the All-Star break.

Their first half of the season an enormous disappointment, the Orioles are four games under .500 at 42-46, marking the first time they’ve had a losing record at the break since 2011, when they were 36-52.

In terms of personnel, this team isn’t much different from the one that went to the postseason in 2016 for the third time in a five-year span under executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter. That club, which earned the second American League wild card spot, was 51-36 at the break and led the American League East by two games, while this year’s version needed a win Sunday to pull out of the division cellar.

“I’m always optimistic,” Showalter said. “Finished on a high note. There are a lot of good things that happened. I try to dwell on that, too, but also have a sense of reality. There are some things that are going to have to get better.”

The Orioles lost 36 of their 56 games going into the break after opening the season 22-10, and their tailspin — which lasted most of the past two months — was marked by some uncharacteristically bad baseball.

The players parted ways Sunday with something to build on, consecutive road wins for just the fifth time this season. Showalter has seen the 16 days leading up to the break as essentially a five-city road trip, as the club played 13 of those games on the road — going to Tampa Bay and Toronto before three games at home against the Rays before their just-completed trip to Milwaukee and Minnesota.

And after losing five of their six road series going into that stretch, the Orioles were able to pull out series wins in Tampa Bay and Toronto and salvage a split in Minnesota.

“It’s been obviously a challenge,” Showalter said. “This is our fifth city counting Baltimore and our guys have come out with these two day games against a really good club and finished playing two really good baseball games. That’s encouraging. And these guys, I hope they get far away from it and kind of recharge the batteries a little bit. It’s been a challenging two weeks for us.”

The Orioles’ starting pitching struggles have been historic — including a stretch of 20 straight games of allowing five runs or more, tying a modern-day major league record — and the rotation’s 5.75 ERA is the worst in the American League and the second worst in baseball to the Cincinnati Reds’ 5.98. No rotation has allowed more base runners — its WHIP of 1.61 and opponents’ batting average of .290 are the worst in the majors.

The starting pitching’s struggles have led to many lopsided losses and a minus-78 run differential unbecoming of a legitimate contender.

But Sunday’s win – as well as Saturday’s victory over the Twins – were reminders of how the Orioles’ formula for winning. Even without a flawless starting pitching performance --- Ubaldo Jimenez yielded four runs in the second inning after being staked to a 5-0 lead — the Orioles played solid defense and kept the game close before the big bats produced.

“We know what we have to do and the last two days, we’ve been able to do it,” said catcher Caleb Joseph, who drove in three runs with a three-hit day Sunday. “Our offense has padded some cushion for the pitchers and they’ve come out and responded well. It’s four days off, so momentum as Buck says is only as good as your next starter. Of course, you feel better leaving this place after a ‘W' than after a loss. That’s for sure.”

After losing with Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman on the mound in their first two games of their series in Minnesota, the Orioles salvaged a series split with the less-reliable Wade Miley and Ubaldo Jiménez on the mound. And over the past two games, the Orioles started rediscovering important aspects to their game: pitching to contact, playing strong defense and taking advantage of their power at the plate.

“Our style is the pitcher attacks the zone, our defense plays well behind him and we get some long balls,” said center fielder Adam Jones, who homered twice Sunday. “And the past two games, actually this series, we’ve been able to do a few of those things. … It all comes down to the starting pitching. They are the ones who set the tempo, and we feed off their energy.”

The Orioles should get several key pieces back in the second half of the season. While shortstop J.J. Hardy won’t return for about another month — his absence has been the most glaring defensively — closer Zach Britton returned last week and is rounding into form, and first baseman Chris Davis should be back when the team resumes play Friday night.

Jones said everyone in the Orioles clubhouse needs a break — both physical and mental — and that that’s more important than any momentum the team is trying to build. Despite their underwhelming record, the Orioles are still just four games out of the second wild-card spot.

Losing these two games could have sent the Orioles closer to considering an early overhaul of the roster. Instead, the team, which appears to have a window for winning through the 2018 season, goes into break with some level of renewed hope.

“The last two games, we played really good baseball,” Jones said. “We’ve got some days off and hopefully we can mentally just get away from this game, mentally put behind us the last two months of baseball and come out the second half blazing saddles ready to attack this East because it’s not going to get any easier and I think all the guys understand that. Let’s go do what we have to do.”

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