MILWAUKEE — All the video scouting and all the pregame preparation in the world can't create the feeling that one of mankind's greatest creatures of comfort — baseball players — crave when they stand in the batter's box against a pitcher for the first time.
The past two losses against the Milwaukee Brewers have accentuated a problem that the flagging Orioles offense has struggled with this season: getting to opposing starters they're seeing for the first time.
"That would be a convenient excuse," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It happens a lot up here. It's not always easy, but you usually make the adjustment and move on. I think it's more [the Brewers' Jimmy] Nelson. He's been a good pitcher most of the year and you can see how they're high on him. I'll give them the credit, even though we're not where we should be."
Showalter knows that adjusting to unfamiliar pitchers is only a part of the problem for a lineup that hasn't produced consistently this season. But it's something that a batting order that was once one of the most feared in baseball has to improve on to help the team out of the sub-.500 doldrums at 40-43 leaving Independence Day.
Three times in the past two weeks alone, a pitcher new to Orioles batters has posted a quality start. Nelson's start in Tuesday's 6-2 Orioles loss was probably the best. He didn't allow an earned run in seven innings, with eight strikeouts and no walks. A day earlier, soft-tossing left-hander Brent Suter fanned eight batters of his own in six innings, allowing an unearned run on four hits with one walk.
And on June 24, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Jacob Faria faced the Orioles for the first time and struck out seven in six innings of three-run ball, though it came in an Orioles win.
Over the past four weeks, a stretch that pretty tidily coincides with the Orioles' team-wide swoon, nine pitchers have made their first starts against the Orioles. Five have posted quality starts, and eight have held them to three runs or fewer.
The group is an eclectic mix of spot starters, veterans and blossoming stars. The only real walloping the Orioles put on any of these starters was on St. Louis Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright, a three-time All-Star.
Some they'd seen out of the bullpen, such as the Toronto Blue Jays' Joe Biagini, but he pitched into the sixth inning and allowed three runs in an Orioles win.
Those were the two best offensive performances they've conjured from scratch off a first-time opposing starter of late. The rest have left them as frustrated as they've been all year. Like Suter, Chicago White Sox spot starter David Holmberg was a lefty who topped out around 89 mph June 15 but allowed only one run while pitching into the fifth inning.
The Pittsburgh Pirates' Chad Kuhl, like Nelson, is a National League pitcher coming into his own, and held the Orioles to a run on four hits in five innings June 6.
Others, such as the Washington Nationals' Joe Ross and St. Louis' Carlos Martinez, are both hard-throwing righties with occasionally dominant stuff. They struck out 12 and eight, respectively, while allowing one run in quality starts.
It's not for a lack of preparation. Players spend much of their pregame time in the clubhouse huddled over computers watching pitch sequences from that day's opponent and poring over reports compiled by the advanced scouting team, which works series ahead to ensure that hitters are prepared.
But once all that is synthesized into the hitters' heads, they still fall back on experience and instinct. And it's hard to have a feel for what you're about to see if the experience isn't there.
“We’re not going to blame it on that we haven’t seen any of these guys,” third baseman Manny Machado said. “They haven’t seen any of us either. It’s just a matter of going out there and producing, passing the baton and getting things going. That’s been our struggle for the last month or so. We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing. I know we’re fighting. I know we’re trying to get better and get past this and stay strong, and as long as we continue to keep working and trying to get better as a team, things will start turning around.”
The overall struggles are more what concerns everyone, even if these outings are difficult to stomach. They Orioles have consistently averaged around 4.4 runs per game all year, but it hasn’t proved to be enough.
“We’re seeing some good pitching, but that’s why they call it the big leagues,” Showalter said. “We’re just … there’s some things privately that we work on and talk about, but we just haven’t been able to put it together. I’m not going to get into critiquing guys individually, but every club goes through ups and downs. We just haven’t been able to click as a team over extended periods very much.”