MINNEAPOLIS — When the Orioles practice rundown plays during spring training, manager Buck Showalter likens it to pheasant hunting, informing them that the key to executing a rundown is chasing down a base runner until he has reached the point of no return before throwing.
Showalter spends those days in Sarasota, Fla., harping on the importance of fundamentals, and because of that, his clubs are often sound executing defensive plays when the season comes. So when the Orioles botched two rundowns over a three-day span this week in Milwaukee, it was noticeable.
Much has gone wrong for the Orioles over the past two months. Their starting pitching has been among baseball's worst. The offense has been inconsistent. The bullpen has dealt with struggles and injuries.
Over that time, the Orioles have still played well in the field. But when other aspects of the game have gone wrong recently, their defense has been wobbly as well.
Before the Orioles held their regular advance meetings prior to the first game of this four-game series against the Minnesota Twins, infield coach Bobby Dickerson herded the team's infielders into a team prep room to go over team's failed rundown Wednesday, when left-hander Jayson Aquino had picked Brewers outfielder Keon Broxton off first base but allowed him to get back to first safely.
"Every time we have a thing on the field that's not done properly, we go over it in the advance meeting with video and the whole nine," Showalter said. "'This is what happened, this is what we have to do differently. Don't forget, this is the way we're supposed to do this.' We've already done that with both of those plays, and I can tell you where the breakdown was, who did it and where they were in spring training."
As the Orioles continue to stumble into the All-Star break, their hopes of resurrecting this seasons are diminishing. They arrived in Minnesota four games under .500, 8 ½ games out of first place and four games out of a playoff spot.
With that, their margin for error has shrunk. Recent Orioles teams didn't give away free bases as this one has, and in the same vein, they would often capitalize on free outs.
But in Wednesday's 4-0 loss to the Brewers, Aquino had Broxton picked off first in the second inning, rookie first baseman Trey Mancini chased him to second and threw to second too quickly. Shortstop Ruben Tejada then threw back to Mancini, who was up the baseline and missed a swipe tag as Broxton went by. Mancini's throw to Aquino at first was also late.
That play came after the Orioles botched a rundown play between third and home Monday, a play that let Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia score from first base in their tone-setting 8-1 loss to Milwaukee.
Arcia went from first to third on a grounder to Tejada, who went to first for the out there. Mancini then threw to third, where Arcia slid past the bag, but at a suddenly cluttered hot corner, third baseman Manny Machado was blocked by Brewers third base coach Ed Sedar and third base umpire Eric Cooper, prompting Arcia to break for home.
Machado threw to right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis, who made a premature throw back to Machado before Arcia committed back in the direction of third base. When Machado threw back to the plate, Tejada and catcher Welington Castillo were at the same spot up the baseline. Castillo was better positioned, but Tejada caught the ball as Arcia sped by for home.
Both plays were created by aggressive base running by the Brewers, but in neither case could the Orioles capitalize on that aggressiveness.
One thing in common on both plays was the personnel. Tejada, who is filling in for injured starter J.J. Hardy, wasn't in spring training with the Orioles. Neither was Yacabonis, and Castillo missed significant time during spring training while playing in the World Baseball Classic. Mancini was in big league camp and saw his share of starts in Grapefruit League games on the road, but has played most of his regular-season games in the outfield before going back to first in Chris Davis' absence.
They are also sequences that magnify the absence of Hardy, who maintains calm as the quarterback of the Orioles defense. Hardy isn't expected to be back until mid-August with a wrist injury.
Asked whether Hardy would have made a difference on those plays, Showalter didn't go far as saying it did, but his response spoke volumes.
"I'll let you [judge]," Showalter said. "You make good points that would be easy for me to say, yeah that's the reason, and it may be truly how I feel, but I'm not going to get involved in [saying that], the person who is messing up hasn't been with us, because we have gone over those things a lot. … That would be a very convenient excuse."