HOUSTON — As the Orioles returned home Sunday night after being swept out of Minute Maid Park following their 8-4 loss to the Houston Astros, they pondered how to end their longest losing streak in nearly six years.
Sunday's loss was the Orioles' seventh straight, their longest slide since dropping nine games in a row July 4-15, 2011. The Orioles have lost six straight six times since then, but over the past five years they have avoided the longer losing stretches that poison a season.
Their poor play isn't isolated to the past nine games. They have also lost 13 of their past 16 and have dropped 11 of their past 13 away from Camden Yards.
So as they return to Camden Yards for what is now a critical nine-game homestand against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox (the two teams ahead of them in the American League East standings) and the Pittsburgh Pirates, they need to find a way out of their rut.
Sunday's loss was without center fielder Adam Jones, who missed his second straight game with a sore ankle and hip, and shortstop J.J. Hardy, who was given the day off. For most of the season, the Orioles have also been without closer Zach Britton, who is methodically working his way back from a left forearm strain in Florida, which has robbed the bullpen of its stability.
"I don't want to oversimplify it," manager Buck Showalter. "It pulls at you — and when the people you respect and know how good they are — are struggling, you want to try to help. But it's one of those things where we get Jonesy back hopefully tomorrow and J.J. back, and Zach's making a lot of progress. But everybody's got issues like that all around baseball and you have to work through them. You've got to look at tomorrow's always the start of something good, but it's the big leagues. You're always going to have really good competition, whether it's the Astros, the Yankees, the Red Sox. That's what makes it so gratifying if you can pull it off."
But a resounding theme of the recent struggles has been Orioles' inability to put away a game, much like Sunday's, when right-hander Alec Asher gave back a 3-0 lead and more during a six-run bottom of the second.
"There's a part of every human being in those situations, how much is enough?" Showalter said. "You go through some of those periods. That's why I felt good after the first inning when he went out there and put a zero on the board, and then after that we just couldn't stem the tide. I think all the runs were scored in a couple of innings. You're playing day games after night games. There are little momentum things that really put you on your heels."
For the Orioles, that's been a recipe for a tired offensive showing through the middle innings. The Orioles scored just one run — on Mark Trumbo's solo homer in the eighth — over their final seven innings. Last Monday, the Orioles took a five-run lead into the third but gave it back and lost in ugly fashion, 14-7. In that game, the Orioles scored just two runs over the final seven innings.
"I think anytime you can score and get runs on the board early, it's obviously beneficial to not only your offense but your pitching, but for whatever reason, we've struggled in the middle innings as an offense to really push runs across, and it's really one of those things where once we do get a few guys across home plate, I think it's going to start some momentum," said first baseman Chris Davis, who was 1-for-12 with 10 strikeouts in the three-game sweep. "I feel like we start pressing a little bit when we get into those situations, and you just can't play the game that way."
That combination has made for difficult moments for hitters and pitchers alike.
"I think everyone's a little frustrated," Asher said. "It's tough not to be. We're a really good team. We'll get through it. Every team hits a rough patch and we'd rather be hitting ours now than in the middle of the year. We'll get through it."
Over their three games in Houston, it was clear how much better the Astros, who have the major leagues' best record at 35-16, are than the Orioles — at least now. The Orioles hit just .210 in the series, they averaged just two runs and the starting rotation posted a 7.90 cumulative ERA.
The Orioles' recent struggles have nearly erased one of the best starts in franchise history, as the club opened the season 12 games above .500 with a 22-10 record after an extra-inning win over the Washington Nationals on May 9. Now, the Orioles are just two games above .500 (25-23) with a challenging schedule against division opponents ahead.
"It's obviously a number of things," Davis said. "I feel like we always have, maybe not a skid quite like this long, but we always have these stretches during the season where we really can't put anything together. Usually it's a little bit later in the season, but I think if you're trying to find a positive, the fact that it's still early and the fact that we still have a lot of baseball to play, I think there's a lot to be said for that. We've just got to get out of it. There's no way around it."
So how do the Orioles break out? Davis said that's not easy to answer.
"That's a good question," Davis said. "If we had the answer, we'd probably put that into action a long time ago. It's just one of those things where one thing goes wrong and it kind of snowballs from there. Just try to stay positive and keep working and keep grinding it out."