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With few external options, struggling Orioles rotation still searching for 2014-like roll

Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez stands on the mound after giving up a three-run home run to the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Friday, June 17, 2016, in Baltimore.
Orioles pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez stands on the mound after giving up a three-run home run to the Toronto Blue Jays in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Friday, June 17, 2016, in Baltimore.(Gail Burton / AP)

Kevin Gausman remembers how quickly things turned in 2014. That year, as they do now, the Orioles had an underperforming rotation that early in the season was considered unfit for a team with championship aspirations.

Then the good starts built on one another and the rotation cuts its ERA by a full run after the All-Star break, helping the team to its best season in nearly two decades.

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It was an ascendant feeling that took over the group, one that this year's Orioles starting pitchers are looking to find for themselves, as opposed to stepping onto the mound every five games carrying their own baggage and that of their comrades.

With major reinforcements unlikely, that's the task of the young Orioles rotation this season: Improve on a campaign mired with inconsistency, without letting those problems define them.

"As a young starting pitcher, it's tough to be consistent and that's what you try to strive to do — be consistent, be the same guy every time you take the mound," Gausman said. "It's going to be tough because physically some days you're not there — mentally some days you're not there also — but being the fact that we only pitch one day out of five, we've got to be able to pitch better. I think I can speak on all of our behalf — we expect ourselves to be better than what we've done lately."

Collectively, Orioles starters entered Saturday's game with a 4.93 ERA, which was 13th in the American League and 27th in baseball. Gausman is sputtering through June, often pitching into jams and on Wednesday night was made to pay for it. He has a 4.14 ERA, slightly better than that of Tyler Wilson, who reversed his own skid with eight scoreless innings Thursday night. Wilson's ERA is 4.16 overall, and 4.58 as a starter. Mike Wright, who was sent to the minors for the second time this month after allowing a career-high eight runs in 32/3 innings Friday night, has a 6.12 ERA.

And on Saturday, right-hander Yovani Gallardo and his 7.00 ERA returned from the disabled list for shoulder tendinitis and took the rotation spot of Ubaldo Jimenez, who along with his 6.89 ERA was sent to the bullpen after his start last Sunday.

Chris Tillman has largely been immune to these struggles, entering the weekend 9-1 with a 2.87 ERA.

Since the advent of the second wild card in 2012, the highest rotation ERA to make the playoffs in the American League belongs to the 2012 Orioles, who had a 4.42 ERA. Last year's eventual world champions, the Kansas City Royals, had a 4.34 rotation ERA. But the Orioles need to stop what's becoming a heavy weight on their shoulders.

"As a competitor in any sport, when someone's struggling you try to put too much pressure on yourself to try and pick up the slack here, pick up the slack there," Tillman said. "I think that's kind of not the right way to go about it. It's natural, though."

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Tillman said he doesn't believe that's what's happening here, noting there's enough pressure on a young starting pitcher to perform for his own sake without compounding it with the need to pick up others.

"When you start focusing on results and picking up the slack, that's when things will snowball," Tillman said. "Results aside, the process is there and I think it's only a matter of time. … I feel like we threw the ball pretty well early. Recently, it's been a little bit of a struggle, but that's a baseball season."

Manager Buck Showalter is quick to point out how young his staff is. Gausman even acknowledges that despite it being his fourth season in the majors, it's a different animal being a full-time starter for the first time.

But barring some kind of major move, this appears to be the group the Orioles will largely go forward with. The starting pitching market for trades is thin, and thus will cost prospect assets the Orioles don't have enough of to comfortably part with.

So for improvement to come, Showalter knows the Orioles have to endure difficult stretches.

"The season's not going to stop while you develop more experienced guys," Showalter said. "The only way to get experience is to pitch. They'll figure it out at some point if they're good enough. They have at times this year. It's not like they pitched poorly all the time. … It's kind of who we are, and how we have to do it."

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That experience paying off this season would bring about a turnaround like the one Gausman remembered so fondly from 2014, when he said the starters "just kind of got in a rhythm of us all kind of feeding off of each other."

"Everybody has the ability once you get to this level," Gausman said. "I think the difference is on the mental side. When you have confidence in yourself, and even confidence in the guys behind you and the guys behind you have confidence in you, it kind of all stems from that."

Unlike 2014, when the Orioles at this point were hovering around .500, they look at the rotation this year as the final piece as opposed to one of several that must come around.

"The fact that we're in the situation that we are right now, [battling] for first place, just goes to show you that if we all can pitch to our abilities, that we could be able to take this division," Gausman said. "There's nobody right now that's really running away with it."

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