There are 43 games left on the Orioles’ schedule, but in many ways, the team’s season is over. Wednesday night’s loss to the Tampa Bay Rays was not only the Orioles’ 14th in a row, making them the first team since 1935 with two such losing streaks in the same season, but also their 81st of the year, meaning one more will guarantee their fifth straight losing season. They almost certainly will enter September mathematically incapable of making the playoffs.
But even if the Orioles as a collective have a few dozen meaningless games left, those contests will mean quite a bit to the Orioles as individuals.
“All of these guys have something to play for,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “And they’ve been reminded of that, and we’ve talked about it for a variety of reasons — financial, roster, just to be an invite [to spring training] next year, to stick on a 40-man [roster] throughout the winter. There’s a lot of reasons to it. They have a lot to play for these last 40 games. I think our players are very aware of that.
“I don’t sense any quit. I don’t think you’re gonna see any quit here the last month-plus, just because there’s so many guys in there — everybody in there has something to play for toward the end of the year.”
Many of their inexperienced players are getting consistent playing time other organizations likely wouldn’t offer. Those with a handful of seasons in the majors such as John Means, Trey Mancini and Paul Fry have experienced up-and-down seasons before being up for arbitration in the offseason, with Jorge López and Pedro Severino appearing as nontender candidates. Underperforming veterans Matt Harvey and Maikel Franco are free agents at the end of the year; while Harvey has possibly captured teams’ interests with an improved second half, Franco’s two-hit Wednesday doesn’t shake his season-long struggles with the Orioles. Opportunity remains the magic word in Baltimore, and few have fully capitalized it.
“We realize we have games to play left, and it’s important how we finish, it’s important how we keep playing and keep our heads down and do everything we can to try and win as many as you can,” Harvey said. “Individually, you want to play well and you want to do everything you can to help the team and that’s our goal for the rest of the season. There’s a lot of games left, and you have to go out there and play your best and I guess at this point kind of prove that you belong.”
In the eyes of Fredi González — a member of Hyde’s coaching staff who has 10 years of major league managing experience himself — All-Star center fielder Cedric Mullins and Rule 5 draft pick Tyler Wells, who has skyrocketed from mopup duty to closing chances, are among the rarities who to this point have proven that. Jorge Mateo is making a strong first impression, getting hits in 11 of 12 games and showing off his blazing speed while getting his first chance at extended major league playing time after Baltimore claimed him on waivers from the San Diego Padres.
“I took Jorge Mateo aside the first day he got here,” González said, “and I said, ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime for you to get a chance to play and get a chance to get some at-bats and get better.’ We emphasize that.
“Those opportunities with the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox or the Toronto Blue Jays don’t happen, or if they happen, it’s a really short period of time and you go back down to Triple-A.”
González is perhaps one of the only managers who can relate to what Hyde has endured in recent weeks. They are two of the four managers since 1901 who have guided a team through a losing streak longer than 10 games in which it lost by an average of at least six runs per game, with González’s dismal run coming in 2015 with the Atlanta Braves. The Orioles have been outscored by 91 on this skid, the least competitive winless stretch in major league history.
Strangely, it followed one of their better runs of the season, as they picked up 10 wins in their first 16 games out of the All-Star break; they won 13 of their final 58 games of the first half, during which they lost their final 14 games of May and 20 in a row away from Camden Yards.
Around the break, González went to Hyde and said he wanted to add a focus on fundamentals to his duties, emphasizing cutoffs, relays, bunt defense and rules such as infield flies to players. Asked whether he’s surprised that he has to detail such aspects to members of a major league team, González said no and that the Orioles aren’t alone in needing such lessons, recalling how after a recent relay play, he searched for a proper example to show Mateo. He said he reviewed video of 70 triples around the league, and it took him 40 minutes to find a handful on which the defense properly positioned itself and executed.
But he also admitted that when the Orioles make mistakes, they’re more likely to hurt.
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“We see us 162, but if you watch games across the league, you see guys make mistakes left and right,” González said, “and sure, the better teams cover it up, because all of a sudden, you make a fundamental mistake, and somebody else hits a three-run homer and covers it up, or a pitcher strikes out the side after we threw the ball away.”
The Orioles have not often been able to recover from their mistakes, especially of late. A dropped popup, missed line drive and a bevy of walks have plagued them in this Rays series alone.
“It’s a lot of stuff not going our way,” Mullins said, “and we’re not helping by creating our own problems out there.”
Both Hyde and González said they like the energy and positivity they’re seeing in the clubhouse, though Harvey said after the first game of this series that he has never been on a team that lost like this and Means said the next day that players are losing sleep.
Hyde said those feelings are understandable; major league players are competitors, after all. He and his staff have tried to alter routines, changing bus times but not going to the attire- or animal-related efforts his mentor Joe Maddon has often employed to lighten moods and build camaraderie. They have also remained steadfast in reminding players of the personal importance of this final stretch. Their jobs and livelihoods are on the line, even if nothing but next year’s first overall draft pick is at stake for the team at large.
“We understand the situation,” Hyde said. “We’re very aware of the situation we’re in against the teams that we play and how hard it is, and where we are as a ballclub right now, it’s challenging, and our players, it’s still a positive environment. I think your guys are still enjoying being here. I know they are, and we’re just going through a really rough time in this rebuild right now.
“We’re playing against teams that are postseason [contenders], and we’re a long ways away. They’re playing to win, and we’re trying to just do the best we can and stay positive with it.”