Even more important than the Camden Yards-heavy portion of the next three weeks of the Orioles' schedule are the teams they will play, a slate that largely features their competition for the American League's two wild-card spots.
This weekend's series against the visiting Los Angeles Angels — still tied with the Minnesota Twins for the second wild-card spot — was a critical starting point. In a crowded field, the Orioles had a valuable opportunity to gain head-to-head ground on one of the clubs they're chasing.
But the Orioles couldn't build on Friday's series-opening win, one of the team's best victories of the season. Instead, they followed Manny Machado's ninth-inning, walk-off grand slam with defeats in the final two games of the series, including Sunday's finale, a 5-4 loss that dropped them to four games under .500 for the first time since July 30.
The Orioles (60-64) now have won four straight series openers but none of those series, going 4-8 since a win to start a three-game set in Anaheim, Calif., two weeks ago.
"You'd have liked to win the series," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We'd have liked to win all three. We had a good opportunity today, but they pitched a little bit better than we did. The competition is us. It's us playing better, regardless of who you're playing. Our competition is Oakland [starting Monday], and it's us. There's opportunity there for us. Games like this, we'd like to win."
In six games against the Angels over the past two weeks, the Orioles lost four and both series. They trail the Angels and Twins for the second wild-card spot by four games.
"Anytime you're in a playoff race with one or two teams you're playing down the stretch, you want to win those games," first baseman Chris Davis said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to get that one today and get the series win, but you know, we've got to find ways to score that extra run, make up that ground late in the game, and really kind of close out some of these games if we really want to have a shot at the postseason and if we want to do well in the postseason."
The Angels turned Camden Yards into their personal launching pad, hitting 11 homers, including two Sunday, in the series after coming to Baltimore ranked 25th in the majors in homers.
Still, Sunday afternoon's game seemed ripe for the hosts' taking, down to the last inning, when the Orioles put the tying run on base with no outs in the bottom of the ninth but couldn't break through against former Orioles starter Bud Norris, now the Angels' closer.
Of course, it's difficult to win any game in which a pitching staff issues nine walks. Three Angels who got a free pass scored, including Kole Calhoun, who earned a leadoff walk in the eighth against Brad Brach and came home for the winning run on pinch hitter Cameron Maybin's opposite-field, two-out RBI single off right-hander Mychal Givens.
Right-hander Chris Tillman walked a career-high six batters in his start, including one just before allowing a two-run homer to Andrelton Simmons in the sixth that gave the Angels a 4-1 lead.
"That's like turning the lineup over without earning it," Showalter said of the nine walks. "You're going to have a tough time winning those games, but we had a shot. Some good things in between those. We outhit them, but the walks — I'm surprised they only scored five runs."
The Orioles showed moxie by rallying from the three-run deficit to tie the game at 4 in the sixth, and one bad hop could have been the difference between the even scoreline and a lead. Mark Trumbo's RBI double would have scored the go-ahead run, but instead the ball skipped off the top off the right-center-field wall and into the stands for a ground-rule double. Adam Jones was sent back to third, where he was stranded.
"I think we all know [on a] 3-2 count, people running on the pitch, it's a rule that doesn't make any sense," Showalter said. "I think both teams would agree with that. But it's one of those things, someone will say, 'That's the way it's always been done.' Well, it's always been done wrong. But today it bit us."
"The way the ball caromed off the wall and actually went into the stands on the ball Trum hit, it was kind of one of those things," said Chris Davis, who homered in the third inning but struck out after Trumbo's hit to end the frame. "We gave ourselves a chance. We battled till the last out, and just got to find a way to push that run across late."
The Orioles took advantage of a throwing error by Angels second baseman Cliff Pennington to fuel their sixth-inning rally. With the bases loaded and no outs, Jonathan Schoop looped a two-run single to chase former Orioles farmhand Parker Bridwell from the game. They added their fourth run on Trumbo's ground-rule double.
The Orioles had another chance against Norris in the ninth, especially once the speedy Craig Gentry reached on a leadoff single. After Davis struck out, Seth Smith drew a walk to put two on. But Caleb Joseph struck out after battling Norris through a nine-pitch at-bat, and Tim Beckham hit a slow come-backer to Norris to end the game.
"I think it's kind of been the story of the whole year for us," Davis said. "With the exception of maybe the second month, I think there's just been games that we've let slip away, some games we really haven't been able to close out, whether it's scoring a run, whether it's tacking on a few runs to give us some breathing room."
As of Sunday night, 33 of the Orioles' remaining 38 games are against either division leaders or teams within five games of the second wild-card spot. The other five are against the Oakland Athletics, in a three-game series starting Monday, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the regular season's final week.
"I think what's going to define us this year is whether or not we can make that push and start winning some of those games," Davis said. "Obviously, we're getting down to some pretty crucial times where we need to start winning these games and start making a move."