Orioles beat reporter Jon Meoli on the team’s struggle to get above .500 after their 9-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics Sunday dropped them to 58-60 on the season. (Jon Meoli, Baltimore Sun video)
After all the Orioles rotation endured over the first few months of the season, pitching coach Roger McDowell is loath to say all the bad times are behind them. He warned against as much Sunday morning, before new right-hander Jeremy Hellickson was charged with six runs in five innings against the Oakland Athletics and suffered his first loss with the team.
But since the Orioles brought in Hellickson, who ultimately replaced Chris Tillman in the rotation, things have stabilized. With Hellickson's start Sunday, the Orioles have a 3.20 ERA in the 16 games since his arrival. Considering they previously had a 5.99 ERA, the improvement has been striking.
There are seven weeks remaining to see whether it's enough to help the team reach the playoffs. But if they do, McDowell knows it won't be because his staff is sitting satisfied with this recent run.
"That's the trap that we as pitchers hopefully never fall into — that we've got it figured out — because each day, whether it's a work day or a game day, you have to continue to hopefully progress to ... the consistency of making quality and executing quality pitches," McDowell said.
"It's something we haven't worked any harder on or any less. Obviously, the results have been better, so I think it comes down to consistency of the fastball command. It's been more consistent — early strikes, being able to throw secondary pitches, all the things that we've worked on throughout the course of the year.
"And these past few weeks have been better. So that being said, you never want to feel like you've got it figured out, because the game has a way of humbling you. ... These guys have been working very, very hard, and we're getting to see the fruits of the labor. They've been working really hard in between starts — the bullpens, the preparation, the film work, everything that they need to do to go out there and be successful every fifth day."
Finding solace in this recent stretch requires some arbitrary parameters. Hellickson's late-July trade matters because of how it fundamentally changed the complexion of the group and, at least temporarily, removed Tillman's then-8.10 ERA from the equation.
But individually, many are seeing breakthroughs after monthslong struggles. Kevin Gausman has lowered his ERA by over a full run (from 6.39 to 5.21) since his first start of the second half, and is nearing the form from his second half of 2016 that made him such a promising piece entering this year.
Ubaldo Jiménez allowed six runs in each of his first two starts of the second half but has allowed just seven earned runs over four since then.
Wade Miley found an effective curveball and has allowed two runs or fewer in his past three starts, and Dylan Bundy is back to his early-season form as well.
McDowell's role in their progress always was going to coincide with what he expected to be a long process of getting familiar with his pitchers, and they with their first-year pitching coach.
"We talked about this in spring training — forming relationships, gaining trusts, and hopefully having the respect and believing in the process of all the things that go into that relationship," McDowell said. "It's a daily grind, daily work, it's a daily effort on all of our parts, and remembering that it's a marathon and not a race. Remembering there's six months and hopefully more in a season to go through that process."
As for Gausman, who looks to bounce back from a tough start in Anaheim when the Orioles open a three-game set tonight in Seattle, McDowell questioned the notion that such a thing as a second-half pitcher exists. But Gausman, like the rest of them, sees what has made him turn it around of late.
"With all of them, it's been the hard work," McDowell said. "Every one of them — not specifically Kevin — have worked during the course of the bullpens or film work or preparation for the game. It's something they've all done and did before I got here and continue to do so. It's nice to see they're getting [results], and there's still 40-plus games left. Let's go to work every day."