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Orioles reset: First and last trips of first half show how rebuilding can still be competitive

There was a lot of bad baseball in between, but the Orioles bookended their first half with their best stretches, beginning with a 4-2 road trip to open the season and ending with the 5-4 spell that carried them into the break.

That such spans of success are so easy to pick out, and came with three months in between them, says plenty about the way this season is going. But the past week has been a nice refresher on something that it seems the Orioles truly lost touch with: if they don't make mistakes, no matter how wide the talent gap is against the opposing team, they at least have a chance.

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The Orioles' goal for the second half should be leaving the ballpark each night feeling as if they’ve accomplished that, and not leave weeks and months in between that obscure the organization’s long-term view.

"It's never easy to feel good about everything that's happening going into the game and have things not work out during the game," manager Brandon Hyde said. "That's happened a lot this first half, so to see guys get rewarded and feel good after the game. That's what I talked a lot about the first couple of months — I feel bad for some of our guys. They're invested, and to not feel good about how the outcome of the game went, that stinks, so we've played pretty good these last seven or eight games, these last couple series."

The last time the Orioles left a road trip feeling as good about their play as they did Sunday was likely that first series here in Toronto. When they won, their offense came in bunches, their starting pitching came through and the relievers held up their end. They also didn't give runs away on defense, something they knew needed to be cleaned up after a disastrous trip out west last month.

"That wasn't happening for us for a little bit there,” right fielder Trey Mancini said. “We were just struggling to do some basic things right, and I think we cleaned that up a lot. We kind of had a team meeting a couple weeks ago and since then we've been cleaning things up. There's still some work to do as far as base running mistakes and little things in the field, especially."

"If you watched us on the West Coast, it was just horrendous defense," starting pitcher Andrew Cashner said. "A lot of plays where we're trying to get outs at home, we're trying to create things. When you're struggling, you're always trying to create. But I think as a pitching staff, we've done a lot better job of minimizing the damage."

The challenge, of course, is continuing to play this way after the All-Star break. There's a long homestand against playoff aspirants when they return, then another long trip out west and the possibility that some of the team's best players will be dealt as the team continues it's focus on the future.

But the first three-plus months have really just shown that a major league team full of second-chancers and fringe players doesn't have to lose in the manner the Orioles did for large stretches of May and June. What made the bad losses feel worse is that the formula is simple. They are 22-26 when Cashner, John Means or Dylan Bundy start, and Sunday's loss dropped them to 5-36 when anyone else takes the mound in the first inning.

Stabilizing those other days allows the bullpen to be a bit more settled and those pitchers to be put in a position to succeed. And having three out of five days in which you have a real chance to win engages the position players both at the plate and in the field, something that's not always the case.

When things go badly, though, it makes all of the instruction and player-development effort the Orioles are prioritizing at the major league level feel a little hollow.

"I think it's been tough," Hyde said. "I think we've had positives and negatives. I think it's not easy to go through our situation, and we can talk about this process we're in, we can talk about that we're looking into the future, but it's not easy to lose. It's never easy to lose, and it can beat you up and wear on you, wear on your club."

What's next?

Left-hander John Means will be the Orioles' representative at Tuesday's All-Star Game in Cleveland, and Hyde, who was on the National League coaching staff for the game in 2017, had some advice for his rookie starter's time in Cleveland.

"Enjoy it," Hyde said. "Soak it all in. I told him that yesterday. Get as many autographs, as many things signed as you possibly can. Enjoy the room where you walk in and there's just gift baskets — whatever they call that. The swag room is unreal, so go in there with a shopping cart and load up, and just enjoy the experience. It's an incredible moment for him, and everything that leads up into it in the game. But it's a really busy three days. He's not going to stop moving, not going to stop signing, and I just want him to enjoy the whole experience."

Means will start one of two games against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday once the Orioles return to action, with Dylan Bundy starting Friday and Andrew Cashner starting Sunday.

What was good?

First baseman Chris Davis has gotten plenty of days off this year, so the fact that the All-Star break is coming as he's starting to really find his swing again is probably disappointing. The good news for the Orioles, however, is that he's found it.

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Davis went 2-for-3 Sunday to bring his batting average to .189, the highest it has been since he was flirting with hitting the .200 mark for the first time since the end of 2017. He's 6-for-12 with two home runs in his past four games, and the challenge will be keeping things going over the four-day break.

When he was having his high-flying stretch in late-April and early-May, it seems his rhythm was halted by a pair of rainouts in New York. If he's able to sustain it over some downtime this week, the Orioles will be better for it.

What wasn't?

Some kind of letdown as always going to be inevitable for Trey Mancini after his All-Star Game snub, and even though the Orioles had a fine week without him, it came out onto the field with him.

He was batting .302 on Sunday morning when he found out, and had just four singles in the ensuing six games as his average fell to a season-low .291. His steady production makes lean times like this more jarring, but Mancini has played 84 of the Orioles' 89 games, and his All-Star absence means he'll actually get some time off this week.

On the farm

Nick Vespi, a 23-year-old left-hander selected in the 18th round of the 2015 draft, was a shutdown reliever at Low-A Delmarva and returned there this year to convert to starting. The transition is going well.

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Since a one-inning dud against Hagerstown on May 13, Vespi has a 1.33 ERA and a 0.887 WHIP in 47 1/3 innings over eight starts, striking out 55 in that span. His season ERA is 3.31, up from 2.09 last year, but in essentially the same amount of innings as last year out of the bullpen, Vespi has replicated most of his success. Being able to do it in the rotation, however, is far more valuable.

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