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Schmuck: Dan Duquette deserves blame for Orioles' free fall, must act before it's too late

If you want, you can fall back on the oft-cited baseball truism that a team is never as good as it looks when it is on top of the world and never as bad as it looks when it is playing like the Orioles have for the past several weeks.

Not sure that applies right now.

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The Orioles have been shockingly bad for an extended period. The pitching staff is in shambles. The Norfolk Shuttle has jumped the rails. The supposedly high-powered offense looks like it's running on flashlight batteries. And, of course, the roster has been depleted by several significant injuries.

It's pretty clear from the posts on social media that fans are frustrated and discouraged, as well they should be. When you go from owning the best record in the major leagues (through May 9) to owning one of the worst records in baseball over a period of more than a month, it's fair to take a hard look at where the team is, where it might be going and, yes, who's to blame for this mess.

Remember, it wasn't all that long ago that I was extolling baseball operations chief Dan Duquette for some of the strong moves he has made on the way to building the best regular-season record in the American League over the past five years. Well, he still deserves credit for all that. But he also has to wear this dramatic tailspin and figure a way out of it before the season unravels to the point where the Orioles have to seriously consider a midseason fire sale.

The only reason the Orioles aren't there already is because the AL is steeped in wild-card mediocrity. Somehow, after losing 22 of their previous 31 games, the Orioles took the field Wednesday night against the Chicago White Sox just two games out of the fifth AL playoff slot.

Duquette has gotten surprising mileage out of the long list of unheralded players he has plucked from the rosters of deeper organizations over the years, but the Orioles don't appear to have anywhere to turn with the rotation in near-total disarray.

Of course, it's not as if nobody saw this coming. The rotation was considered a major weakness long before the Orioles arrived at spring training, and the only major offseason move impacting it was the deal that sent veteran starter Yovani Gallardo to the Seattle Mariners for veteran outfielder Seth Smith.

To be fair, that was a good deal for the Orioles and would have represented addition by subtraction — Gallardo is 3-6 with a 6.11 ERA this season — if Duquette had come up with an adequate starter to replace him. Instead, the deal left the Orioles with questionable depth at a time when the club knew No. 1 starter Chris Tillman had suffered a relapse of the shoulder injury that hampered him late last season.

The Orioles were able to get by for a while by plugging in the likes of Alec Asher, Jayson Aquino and Tyler Wilson when it became apparent that Ubaldo Jiménez wasn't going to morph into a walk-year wunderkind. But the Orioles' ability to remain at or near the top of the standings depended heavily on the return of a healthy Tillman and a strong performance from the club's two promising young starters.

Of those three pitchers, only Dylan Bundy has performed consistently well. Tillman has struggled mightily since returning from the disabled list and Kevin Gausman has totally lost touch with what made him so effective during the second half of last season.

The case can be made that everything else that has befallen the Orioles over this ugly stretch stems from the volatile pitching situation. The club has been hammered so badly in the early innings that it's almost understandable that young superstar Manny Machado and some of the other veteran hitters are trying to do too much to compensate.

The injuries to Zach Britton and Darren O'Day also have had a major impact and the recent oblique strain suffered by slugger Chris Davis doesn't exactly brighten the outlook. But Duquette needs to find a decent starting pitcher and he can't afford to wait until mid-July to get serious about it.

By that time, it might not matter … and we might be having an entirely different conversation about the future of this team.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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