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Orioles' struggles in final year with top stars mirror those of last year's Royals

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

This week at Camden Yards, the Orioles will look across the diamond and hope that the Kansas City Royals are the team they'll be able to get their season on track against. The Royals will look the other way and see a spot-on replica of themselves from this time last season.

A year before the Orioles entered the season with a successful core almost all hitting free agency at the same time, the Royals did the same. For them, it was Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar. For the Orioles, it's Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Brad Brach and Zach Britton.

For the Royals, it was a seven-game losing streak at the end of April dropping them to 13-21 through 34 games. The Orioles have two six-game road losing streaks and are 8-26 in their first 34.

As the Royals recounted some of what last season was like, there are already marks of what the Orioles are dealing with — both the atmosphere of winning that suddenly vanishes and the come-what-may attitude that led the Royals to pull themselves back over .500 by the trade deadline. The Orioles would probably sign in blood for an 80-82 record like the Royals ended with.

"It's tough, because it's almost like the last year of high school," said former Orioles right-hander and current Royals pitcher Jason Hammel, who arrived in Kansas City in February 2017. "Everybody is going off their separate ways. You're still trying to enjoy and have a good time, but you kind of know what's coming.

"Usually, the teams that have had success and have built a kind of winning formula, I guess, all heading out at the same time — they usually have done a pretty good job amongst themselves to basically be able to filter what's really important," he said. "Kind of take all the expectations, take all the distractions, and push it away. So knowing all those guys and being here the last couple of years, they're probably handling it just fine. It's tough. You try to move past it and just play baseball."

The parallels of the end of their respective runs of competitiveness aren't the only thing drawing the Orioles and Royals together. They rose from the basement of the league in step with each other earlier this decade, with an Orioles team that many look back on as a World Series contender falling in an improbable sweep to the Royals in the 2014 American League Championship Series. A year later, the Royals won the World Series.

Both teams lost key pieces along the way, and kept veterans in Chris Davis and Alex Gordon, who have fallen off. The Royals decided to trade closer Wade Davis before his last season of club control. Thanks to an Achilles tendon injury, the Orioles have kept Britton.

After signing Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner to fill out their rotation during sprting training, the Orioles certainly didn't expect to or want to end up following the Royals' path for what that season would look like, though.

Injuries to the likes of Jonathan Schoop, Mark Trumbo, Tim Beckham, Colby Ramsus and Britton have forced the Orioles to dig deep into a shallow farm system and exposed most of their depth as below replacement level. When they hit, they don't pitch. When they pitch, they make one mistake in the field that costs them the game. Whenever they win, it's wonky.

They had designs of at least competing for a playoff spot. That looks a long way off now, and the Royals knew that feeling, too.

"When you're winning, things are easier," Royals infielder Whit Merrifield said. "And last year, we didn't get off to a great start. We didn't play the baseball that we knew we could have on a consistent basis. When you're losing, everyone's going to try and find certain things to point to and certain reasons why we're not winning. That's all part of losing, so, when you're winning, nobody has those problems."

Said Hammel: "Obviously, last year's April here was not good. We did it again this year, but once you feel good and the team is actually playing to what the capability is, it's easier to say, 'Let's ride it out and give it one last shot.' "

Those good feelings came around June, when the Royals used a six-game winning streak and a 16-9 month to get them back to .500. A nine-game winning streak right before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline meant the Royals kept their core together to try to make one last run, but finished two games below .500. They ended up re-signing Escobar and Moustakas, so the dusk of their competitiveness proved to be a false one.

But to hear them discuss the dynamics of a team that was a lot like what the Orioles are going through now, it was something that figured into much of what they did in 2017.

"I think we tried to enjoy the times we had together, because we knew there could be a change," Merrifield said. "I don't think as far as winning, losing, having more pressure on each guy — I don't think that was ever a thing."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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