The Orioles headed south Sunday night for a road trip that could determine the direction of the franchise. They were able to salvage an inspiring comeback win over a Houston Astros team that has the best record in the American League to avoid a three-game sweep at Camden Yards, but numbers still might not favor the outward optimism the Orioles have that they can still contend for a playoff spot.
With the nonwaiver trade deadline looming a week from Monday, the Orioles left Baltimore still in limbo. They are four games under .500, but entered their six-game trip to Tampa Bay and Texas 3 1/2 games out of the second AL wild-card spot. That's a position within reach, even though the Orioles haven't gained much ground despite a 5-2 week at home.
"Yeah, it's good," closer Zach Britton said about winning the series finale. "You don't want to get too far out in the standings. I understand where we are right now. You don't want to watch the standings, but it's the reality of where we are. And where we are in the standings kind of dictates where we go as an organization for a lot of guys in this locker room. These guys are fighting to win some games so we can keep this group together."
The Orioles played the Astros competitively — especially considering that they were outscored by the Astros 15-6 in a three-game sweep in Houston in May — but still needed some late-inning resilience to avoid a sweep and a losing homestand (they finished 5-5).
They won Sunday by outslugging a good-hitting team. Right-hander Dylan Bundy lost a pair of three-run leads on one swing each time, and often in the past, the offense couldn't recover from that. But on Sunday, it showed resolve similar to that of recent Orioles teams, tying the game on Mark Trumbo's seventh-inning solo homer, then executing timely hitting in a two-run eighth that won the game.
"That's a really good baseball team," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "You all know that. … To play nine innings with them and have more runs than they do when it's over is something you've got to be proud of. That's a good team, one of the best ones we've seen this year. They've got a lot of weapons. Our guys made a lot of adjustments to the pitching patterns. Score nine runs off that staff. In day games there's a lot of stamina tested, especially here. When they're issuing warnings about not going outside and you play nine innings in 3 1/2 hours in something they've told you not to do, it's a challenge."
Showalter quietly marveled about how the Astros have built themselves to win — overcoming several years of lumps to construct a contender with good drafting, solid player development and some savvy trades. Houston has built up such a lead — a 17-game cushion in the AL West – that it can still play loose. He wondered how a team would have such depth that a player with 18 homers such as Marwin González could come off the bench, as he did Saturday to hit the three-run pinch-hit homer that sent the Orioles to defeat in the middle game of the series.
"They have a lot of pieces that fit, a lot of movable parts, a lot of things," he said. "Marwin González makes that whole club [better]. He can play everywhere. He can give [George] Springer a day off, this guy a day off and play shortstop. It's a really good club."
The Orioles should get better with the looming return of shortstop J.J. Hardy and utility man Ryan Flaherty, but neither is the game-changer the inconsistent Orioles lack. The return of Zach Britton can unquestionably solidify a bullpen that's been pieced together most of the year, and Britton converted his first save opportunity since returning from the DL with flashes of his former self.
But if there's any player most likely to not be in an Orioles uniform when the club returns to Baltimore next week, it's probably Britton.
Executive vice president Dan Duquette told fans Saturday that he is still optimistic this year's team still has a playoff push in it, and is looking to improve the club instead of ration off pieces for the future — despite reports to the contrary.
The weekend series was considered a litmus test for the Orioles.
"I think it was a test for us because they came in here in first place by a lot of games," second baseman Jonathan Schoop said. "And a test for us to show we're good, too. [We] beat them today, move on and look forward to Tampa and try and win a series over there."
The Orioles still dropped two of three this weekend — they have just one series win in their past six — so the most important fact of the matter is that given the hole the Orioles have dug for themselves at this point in the season, it's more about wins and losses than any moral victories.
And the starting rotation, while giving the club some optimism in the Orioles' four-game sweep of the Texas Rangers, is still far from fixed.
After receiving three straight quality starts in the first three games against the Rangers, they haven’t had a quality start in the past four games, and that included quick unravelings by right-handers Chris Tillman and Bundy — two pitchers who had begun making significant strides.
Now the Orioles must show they can win on the road, where they are 17-30, second worst in the AL.
The second wild-card spot gives teams hope — sometimes a false one — and takes away some relevance from the nonwaiver deadline because teams can still wait out August and make waiver deals until the end of next month.
For now, inside the clubhouse, the Orioles hold out hope.
“It’s still there for us, and that’s the way everybody in the clubhouse thinks of it,” Showalter said. “Having Zach back allows you to do some things that we haven’t been able to do. There’s been a lot of experimenting in a lot of different roles. [Fill-in closer] Brad [Brach] did a great job for us, as good as anybody could ask and actually showed that he could do that job for us or somebody else down the road.”