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Orioles reset: With playoff hopes hanging by a thread, O’s look forward to making one last run

In the minutes after the daily losses the Orioles suffered at the hands of the New York Yankees this weekend, a position player offered an optimistic view of the promise of tomorrow.

“We just didn’t come out and execute today,” DJ Stewart said Friday, when the Yankees swept a doubleheader by a combined score of 16-1. “But tomorrow’s another day.”

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“Tomorrow, we’ve got another opportunity to start a winning streak,” Hanser Alberto said after Saturday’s 2-1 loss in 10 innings. "Let’s see what happens.”

“Somebody has to lose, and we lost today,” Renato Núñez said after a 3-1 defeat finished the four-game sweep Sunday. “We’re going to come back tomorrow stronger than today.”

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The Orioles are running out of tomorrows. With two weeks left in the regular season, Baltimore trails the Yankees by 5½ games for the American League’s final wild-card spot after entering the series only 1½ games back.

They are not alone at that distance. The Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Angels are also all within 6½ games of New York. That clump further weakens the Orioles' playoff odds.

At one point this week, the Orioles had a greater than a 1-in-10 chance of reaching the postseason, according to FanGraphs. Thanks to five straight losses, those odds have dropped to 1-in-200. At Baseball Prospectus, they’re slightly better at 1.5%.

Where does that path come from? All but three of their final 14 games will be against teams in playoff position, with a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox to open their final road trip as the exception.

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They’ll end the season against the Toronto Blue Jays, and it could be a vital series. Half of the Orioles' losses have come against the Blue Jays and Yankees, and those two teams, half a game apart in the standings, face each other seven times before the season ends. If the Yankees stay hot and do to Toronto what they did to the Orioles this weekend while Baltimore holds its own in the meantime, that final series could decide the AL’s final wild-card team.

Of course, that requires a string of tomorrows that live up to the Orioles' hopes.

What’s next?

The Orioles will play eight home games over the next seven days, all against division-leading teams.

They’ll return to Baltimore for three games with the Atlanta Braves, their only matchup with the National League East’s top team. It will be a challenging series for Orioles pitching: The Braves lead baseball in OPS and runs.

The Orioles then host the Tampa Bay Rays for five games, with two coming as part of a home-and-home doubleheader to account for last month’s matchup that was postponed as a result of the team’s protest against racial injustice and police brutality. In the Rays' previous visit to Camden Yards, the Orioles swept them as part of their unexpected 12-8 start.

What was good?

The Orioles entered this week having yet to win a game started by 2019 All-Star John Means this season. Although they haven’t won since, they managed to change that.

Means worked six innings for the first time Tuesday, limiting the New York Mets to one run. He repeated Sunday with another six innings of one-run ball against the Yankees. Those two outings lowered the left-hander’s ERA from 8.10 to 5.63.

“I’m starting to feel more like myself,” Means said.

The difference for Means was harnessing the increased velocity he brought into the 2020 season and instead focusing on commanding it. Means' fastball averaged 93.3 mph in both of those starts, the slowest he’s thrown it in his eight outings this season.

His pitch mix as a whole has played up as a result. The only time this season he has posted a higher whiff rate — the percentage of opponents' misses among their swings — in an outing was his first start of the year, when his fastball averaged more than 95 mph for the only time in his career but he surrendered five runs in the first inning.

Means has still pulled out the mid-90s fastball on occasion in these two outings, but he hasn’t, as Hyde put it, repeatedly “pitching out of frustration.”

“It’s nice to know that I’ve got the extra velo if I need to,” Means said. “I know it’s there, but right now, I’m just worried about hitting spots. Now that I’m more loose and fluid, I think that the velocity might be a tick down, but it might play a tick up because it’s in a better location.”

What wasn’t?

The moment the Orioles offense soured this week is a rather obvious one. Michael Conforto’s bases-loaded catch in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Mets robbed Rio Ruiz of several RBIs and preceded a New York rally that has since snowballed into five straight Orioles losses.

Since Conforto’s catch, the Orioles have been outscored 23-3 while hitting .142/.187/.213 and striking out in almost 30% of their plate appearances. It doesn’t help that Friday’s doubleheader featured matchups with Gerrit Cole and Mashario Tanaka, who combined to allow one run in 12 innings with 14 strikeouts. But wasting strong starts from Dean Kremer and Means over the weekend hurts, especially when Saturday’s low output came against Jordan Montgomery, who struck out nine and lowered his 5.72 ERA by nearly a run with his start.

“We were not able to hit those guys,” Núñez said. “Nothing. We didn’t really score too many runs, and if you don’t score, you don’t win.”

On the farm

With the Orioles' outfield currently stocked with members of the club’s 2015 draft class, another had a chance to join them this week.

Ryan McKenna, Baltimore’s No. 21 prospect per Baseball America, was on the Orioles' taxi squad for the trip to New York. He wasn’t needed on the active roster, but he took advantage of time working with hitting coach Don Long and the rest of the coaching. Given his status on the 40-man roster, it remains possible he gets an opportunity before the season ends.

“I’m very positive and I’m optimistic and praying that the opportunity for me comes as soon as it can,” McKenna said this week. “I had a good conversation with Brandon and said, ‘Hey, I feel confident here, and if and when you guys need me, I’m ready to contribute to a winning ballclub here in Baltimore.’”

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