The Orioles lose to the White Sox, 5-2, dropping the series, and falling below .500 again with a record of 32-33. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)
Everything is going badly for the Orioles, a fact that they've tried hard to deflect during a string of losing road trips but haven't been able to do much to reverse.
Thursday's 5-2 loss the to Chicago White Sox, which dropped them to 32-33 on the season and continued a glum run of results both on the road (12 losses in 13 games) and overall (17 losses in 24 games), made that quite clear. Losses are a team statistic — one of the few that matter — and everyone owns a piece of Thursday's.
The pitchers heap blame on themselves — understandable considering the five runs allowed was the fewest the Orioles conceded on their just-completed eight-day, three-city trip. The hitters say they need to give the pitchers a bit of cushion — true again, considering they scored fewer than three runs for the fifth time on the trip. More ground balls seem to have eyes through the infield than ever before. Manager Buck Showalter seems skittish to go to his bullpen.
But he said he believes it's all temporary, provided one part of their struggles — any one will do — starts to lift the load for the rest.
"It's all fixable, because we've shown that sometimes those are strengths for us," he said. "We've got to get back to that. I'm not one of those guys that hangs it all around one phase of the game. This is a game where when one is lacking, the other part of the game picks it up. That's something we've done well and been known for. We aren't doing it right now."
Thursday's matinee at Guaranteed Rate Field was an example of what happens when you wait too long for one of those areas to get on track. Chris Tillman, who hasn't been himself since working back from a shoulder injury during the spring, limited the damage while scattering eight hits in the first five innings before unraveling over the first five batters of the sixth.
By the time he exited, Tillman earned the loss and was charged with five runs on 11 hits. There was a piece of every aspect of the team's failings that contributed to that.
Caleb Joseph, Tillman's catcher for the day, noted "he had seven ground-ball hits, right between two or three inches of defenders' gloves."
"Unfortunately, they just weren't at guys," Joseph said. "I think it's a totally different story if some of those guys are caught."
They were part of a steady trickle through gaps in the Orioles infield that haven't existed in the past. The infield is usually the bedrock of the team's defense every year, but in 2017 entered Thursday with minus-4 defensive runs saved.
A few of those balls being fielded might keep Tillman fresher later, but instead he ran into a wall the third time through the order in the sixth inning, and Showalter had to stick with him for lack of a better option.
Showalter stuck with Tillman even after the right-hander loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth inning, and watched a tie game turn into a 5-1 deficit. The same thing hurt the Orioles on Tuesday with right-hander Alec Asher, who allowed a grand slam that busted that game open before he recorded an out in the sixth that game.
In both situations, the bullpen was severely undermanned. There are always seven bodies out there now, with stand-ins for injured closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O'Day, but the deck isn't always full. Brad Brach is held in reserve for saves and Mychal Givens is used when ahead, as he was for 30 pitches Wednesday.
The next Brach or Givens or O'Day hasn't yet emerged, at least out of the relievers available. Mike Wright has been dealing with a shoulder problem and wasn't an option Thursday. Ubaldo Jiménez will only pitch every few days, and even then only for length.
So Thursday, as Showalter did earlier this week, he waited as long as he could for his starter to force the manager to pull him. Rookie Jimmy Yacabonis lost the plate once he did relieve Tillman, and the end damage was a 5-1 deficit.
It could have just been a few runs against in that sixth inning and it might have been too much for the Orioles offense. Joseph only had to look as far back as Wednesday night, when the Orioles scored 10 runs in a win, to see what's required at the plate.
"We have got to capitalize," Joseph said. "We've got to do what we did last night. We've got to take some pressure off these pitchers and allow them to get in a groove. We've got to take advantage of these scoring opportunities. It hasn't been for a lack of opportunities lately. We have to take advantage. There's just no way around it. I believe that we have to give the pitchers a little break."
On Thursday, it was more of the same in terms of capitalizing. The Orioles left nine men on and went 1-for-8 with men in scoring position Thursday. On the trip, they stranded 47 over eight games and went 19-for-65 (.292) with someone on second or third. But 11 of those 19 hits came in two games, Monday and Wednesday.
An offense that, this month alone, has been without third baseman Manny Machado, center fielder Adam Jones, first baseman Chris Davis, outfielder Seth Smith and catcher Welington Castillo just hasn't found a rhythm yet.
But Tillman won't take any of those as excuses. He took ownership of the sixth-inning collapse and everything that went into the loss, the latest in a line of starting pitchers for the Orioles who say they need to be better. They've now provided one quality start in their past 10 tries.
"It's not fun, but at the same time, the guys are playing hard," Tillman said. "They're not giving in. They're not making lazy mistakes. It's more that we have to play a better brand of baseball, and most importantly have to pitch better. It goes to show how when you're pitching well, you tend to win more ballgames."
That's just one part of it, though. Trying to fix it all at once is the challenge.
"We have tremendous expectations that we want to meet," Joseph said. "This isn't a keel-over-and-let-them-kick-your-teeth-in type of team.
"There's frustration. If you don't execute situations where you can drive guys in, it's frustrating. The hardest part is to hold back a little bit and execute where you need to do versus let the anxiety or the pressure or the will-to get in the way."