Orioles beat reporter Jon Meoli on the team’s struggle to get above .500 after their 9-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics Sunday dropped them to 58-60 on the season. (Jon Meoli, Baltimore Sun video)
OAKLAND, CALIF. — Maybe the ceiling isn't made of glass after all.
What else could explain an Orioles team that has been so close to stringing together a solid stretch of victories, enough to break into the American League wild-card chase and give them an elusive winning record, only to lose games like Sunday's and to split a series with the lowly Oakland Athletics?
Every time the Orioles (57-59) have a chance to reach a winning record, a feat just as close as it should be attainable, something like Sunday's 9-3 loss happens to knock them back down.
"Every game's big right now, so when you lose, you feel like you had to have that one," said Sunday's starter, Jeremy Hellickson, who watched the makings of a gem fade with one bad inning. "I don't know. Just frustrated right now."
The same could be said for many of his teammates, though there was a feeling of familiarity about what had just transpired as the Orioles packed up to leave behind the East Bay and head north for three games against the Mariners.
Sunday's loss dropped them to 3-4 on their road trip. A sweep of Seattle at Safeco Field is the only way the Orioles can return to Baltimore with a winning road trip and a winning record.
But in a week out west that saw them lose two of three to a Los Angeles Angels team in direct competition with them for the playoffs, and split with an Oakland side that is in its annual August rebuild, no aspect of the club was blameless.
Hellickson recorded his first nine outs on 24 pitches and was on pace for unparalleled efficiency as far as Orioles starters go, but a five-run fourth inning put the Orioles behind for good.
The offense, which the night before had looked irrepressible in collecting 20 hits and scoring a dozen runs while building on a body of work that has made it the best in the game since the All-Star break, looked ready for an encore Sunday. By the time they'd recorded their seventh out, the Orioles had two runs on seven hits.
They managed just three hits the rest of the way and scored only on a consolation home run by third baseman Manny Machado.
Their bullpen didn't keep it close, either, with home runs off left-handers Richard Bleier and Zach Britton putting out all thoughts of a comeback once Hellickson was gone.
An even win-loss record, which an Orioles victory Sunday and so many other times would have gotten them, isn't the mark of a team bound for glory. But considering the Orioles were last above .500 on June 12 — when they were 31-30 — and have spent most of the past two months scraping to get back to that mark, the significance of breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling fades with each lost opportunity.
They couldn't do it in Anaheim, where a win Monday made them 56-56 before their bats went quiet in the final two games and dropped them back again. An eighth-inning loss Friday, when they were 57-58, stung as well. But after a comprehensive win Saturday and with the reliable Hellickson on the mound, reasonable expectations had their record heading to Seattle at 58-58.
Instead, it was another inconsistent effort in a season full of them.
"It's just about playing baseball — we've got to keep doing what we're doing," Machado said. "One day, we come out there and we play as a team, and the other day, we miss opportunities. We've just got to stick together, keep doing what we're doing. We've got a great team. We've got a great lineup. We've got a great pitching staff. Things haven't turned out the way we'd like them to be, but we're going to keep fighting until the end."
Before the Orioles flew west, manager Buck Showalter said these long trips are difficult but don't ultimately define teams. That message carried Sunday.
"We're going to Seattle, trying to win baseball games," Showalter said. "It doesn't leave you here, there. You're always trying to say this means this and that means that — it means you're trying to get ready to play a baseball game tomorrow and try to win and finish up what could be a good road trip for us if we do well in Seattle."
It does leave them somewhere tangible — 2 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot, with four teams between the Orioles and the Angels, who hold that spot. Abstractly, perhaps Showalter is right.
But more than two months of being unable to secure a winning record leaves a team nowhere good at all.