TORONTO — Throughout the month of August, particularly its last week, the Orioles were playing their best baseball of the season, and the source of the club's summer surge was an offense that was the best in the majors during the month.
But as the calendar has switched to September, the bats have again gone cold, struggling to score runs at the most inopportune time of the season, while the team is chasing other playoff contenders and with the games dwindling.
"This time of year, it's a snowball time of the year," manager Buck Showalter said. "Ask the Dodgers, ask the Indians. Ask three or four clubs. There is such a fine separation from teams that are going to win 100 and lose 100. People roll their eyes at that, but you have to stay mentally and emotionally strong to not let it snowball negatively."
The Orioles were held to five runs in three games against baseball's hottest team, which is understandable given the roll the Cleveland Indians are on, but going back to Sept. 1, the Orioles entered Monday night's series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre having scored just 24 runs in nine games, 2.67 per game. And their offensive woes hadn't been isolated to the Indians series as they had scored two or fewer runs six times in nine September games.
"It's sometimes just how it goes as a collective group," outfielder Trey Mancini said. "Obviously, September hasn't been as kind to us as August was, but a lot of pitchers we've been facing have been pretty nasty. It seems like every night everybody's on and at this time of the year, you've got to expect that and maybe make some adjustments and hopefully we can do that moving forward."
During August, the Orioles scored 175 runs in 29 games, averaging 6.03 per game, a mark that was second best in the major leagues and tops in the American League. Their collective .882 OPS — including eight players with an .800 OPS or better — was the best in baseball.
But in September — albeit with a smaller sample size — the Orioles' team OPS is 250 points lower at .632 and just three players have an OPS of .650 or higher: Manny Machado (.904), Welington Castillo (.859) and Jonathan Schoop (.739).
Three hot batters don't make a playoff team, not in September and not looking up at four teams for the second AL wild-card spot with 18 games remaining in the regular season.
"This is a really important time for us, no doubt," designated hitter-outfielder Mark Trumbo said. "Every game counts, especially this time of the year. It holds a lot of weight. You've got to treat it as a normal game at the same time. A lot of people play their best when they're relaxed and focused, so I don't know why you'd deviate from that."
The offensive struggles began during a four-game series against the Blue Jays two weekends ago. After scoring eight runs in an 11-8 loss in the opener July 31, the Orioles scored just eight runs over the remaining three games.
Now — as the team enters Monday three games out of the second AL wild-card spot, the players have to put a frustrating Cleveland series behind them and regroup against the Toronto team that began their slump.
For now, they're happy to be away from the Indians.
"I think those guys are on a roll," Trumbo said. "They've got a lot of momentum. Everyone wants to ask whether it's a real thing. That's what it looks like. We did the best we could. At the end of the day, what can you do? We're going to come here, give everything we have. New series, different team. That was a tough one, but there's going to be more tough ones as well. We're prepared, we're going to go to work and that's what you do."
September offers a different dynamic because roster expansion gives managers more chess pieces to use, often forcing hitters to face unfamiliar pitchers.
"But it's the same game, whether it's September or April. Even February in spring training, baseball doesn't change," Mancini said. "You can't think about any of those outside factors too much and let it dictate anything you do at the plate. You have to keep your same approach. … It really shouldn't change what you do at the plate."
Showalter believes that just as the Orioles have found themselves in another offensive rut, they can emerge from it with one strong game.
"You don't look at standings and go, 'We have to win X number of games,' " Showalter said. "You have to win tonight. You can't get involved in, 'We have to go X and X to get there.' I still believe that if we get it going, it's still going to be there for us."
The Orioles' resurgence last month was propelled by 57 homers, a major league record for the month, but it also correlated with a .294 average with runners in scoring position, a mark that ranked second in the majors and best in the AL.
This month, the most glaring number is the team's on-base percentage of .260, which is worst in the majors. Fewer base runners means fewer scoring opportunities, and it dilutes the offense's greatest strength, its power.
"It's both," Showalter said when asked whether that has to do with the level of pitching the team has faced in recent days. "I'm always going to give credit to the opposition, but the combination — we haven't swung the bat well here lately after having a long stretch of really swinging it well. Every team goes through it. You just don't want to see it happen in September. But you are always a day away from that changing."