Orioles manager Buck Showalter talks about the team's 7-3 loss to the Indians. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
That the Orioles were able to scratch together a few leads against reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards was a departure from their recent norm.
That they had to face yet another pitcher of his caliber was not.
Kluber was the fourth Cy Young Award winner the Orioles had faced in the season's first 22 games. They were rained out of a fifth last week in Boston, and six other starters they've faced have received votes at one point or another.
The Orioles were always going to be challenged with their April schedule full of playoff teams from a year ago. Part and parcel with that are the frontline arms, many lauded as the game's best, that those teams present.
They're always quick to give credit when they do what Kluber did — pitch into the eighth inning and largely dominate. But it's become clear that it's not just the elite pitchers doing this to the Orioles. Mike Clevinger pitched a two-hit shutout Saturday.
What days like Sunday obscure are whether the 6-16 Orioles as currently built are shrinking to the task of facing the top pitchers in the game or shrinking against all pitchers.
"It's challenging," manager Buck Showalter said. "This guy's not a good pitcher — he's one of the elite pitchers. And the guy yesterday — that's why they're playing at the end of the season. But we've faced some guys that maybe didn't have that.
"That's convenient. It's true. But it's not something our guys talk about and dwell on, and we need to beat those people to get where we want to go, and we haven't done that. That's something that's got to happen, because it's not just going to go away, especially in this division where you're seeing a quality pitcher almost every night."
There are things that can be done against such quality pitchers to make their lives more difficult. Manny Machado did that, punishing a pair of mistakes from Kluber for home runs, tying him for the major league lead. They can work the count, which really only rookie Anthony Santander did on a 12-pitch at-bat in the seventh inning that brought Kluber's pitch count into the 90s and likely eliminated the chance of a second consecutive complete game against them.
But Showalter didn't want to belabor what they could do better at.
"They're trying," he said. "Without reflecting poorly on one guy or whatever, the effort's there, the work that's being put in, the preparation. If they stay true to that, we hope it comes. But there's a lot of things [we're not doing well] that I'm not going to voice here."
The numbers voice them well enough on their own. Sunday was their 15th game in 22 during which the Orioles have scored three runs or fewer, and they're averaging 3.13 per game. Much of that comes down to their struggles against starting pitchers. Even the third time through the lineup, when hitters are supposed to have an advantage against a tiring starter, the Orioles struggle.
Kluber flirted with being the fifth pitcher this year to turn the lineup over three times, but instead allowed just two singles and no runs his third time through. Entering Sunday, the Orioles had had 133 plate appearance against a pitcher they'd already seen at least twice, the second-most in the league. They hit .214 in such situations.
"When you're facing Cy Young pitchers, it's tough to get some runs on them," Machado said. "When you get some runs on them, you hopefully try to keep the lead and keep going."
Machado did that for them twice Sunday with a first-inning home run to put them up 1-0 and a fourth-inning blast to level the game at 2. The Orioles went ahead in that inning after center fielder Adam Jones doubled and scored on a single through the shift by Chris Davis.
But Cleveland took the lead back from Andrew Cashner in that fifth inning, dropping him to 1-3 after six innings of four-run ball, then Kluber went back to work. He struck out three straight in the seventh and left only after Caleb Joseph singled to open the eighth because former Oriole Andrew Miller was fresh and ready. Miller carved through the next three batters with ease, and Cody Allen had clinched the save with a breezy ninth inning.
It sent the Orioles into Monday night's series finale against Carlos Carrasco — last year's No. 4 finisher in AL Cy Young voting — needing a win to salvage a series split and save themselves from falling further into the cellar.
"If you want to call it a hole, [it's] something that can be dug out of," Showalter said. "We can, but you can't just wish it and hope it and think it's something that comes with the mathematics of a season. It's got to happen. You always have a sense of urgency, but you don't really compare yourself with other teams that much, and you don't compare yourself with what portion of the season you've played or this or that or whatever. We know the world we live in, and we welcome that."