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Schmuck: Results of Orioles' latest chemistry experiment point toward playoff contention

From left, Orioles Jonathan Schoop, David Lough, J.J. Hardy, and Gerardo Parra celebrate their 9-2 win over the Oakland Athletics on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, in Oakland, Calif.
From left, Orioles Jonathan Schoop, David Lough, J.J. Hardy, and Gerardo Parra celebrate their 9-2 win over the Oakland Athletics on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

Team chemistry is a largely undefinable concept. It's sort of like modern art, in that most people can tell whether it's good or bad, but not many can actually tell you why.

During the past several years, the Orioles have gotten a lot of mileage out of their positive clubhouse environment and the eclectic array of players who have melded together to transform the organization from perennial loser to regular playoff contender.

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Manager Buck Showalter gets a lot of credit for creating a culture of hard work and team-first spirit that has taken the Orioles into the postseason two of the past three seasons, and that credit is well-deserved.

So, what exactly happened in July, when the Orioles suddenly forgot themselves and lapsed into a deep slump that threatened to knock them out of contention and into a free-agent fire sale? And, for that matter, why have they recovered so abruptly to again play like one of the best teams in the American League?

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Both are fair questions and neither lends itself to a simple answer. The tailspin in July might have been nothing more than a garden-variety slump, or it might have been something else altogether. Nobody plays well all the time and everybody goes through periods of lackluster play and poor luck.

The Orioles went through an extended period of both, which might have been complicated by some rare interpersonal problems in the clubhouse that challenged the team's long era of good feelings.

The club was on a roll in mid-June when a controversial roster decision led to an angry response from pitcher Wei-Yin Chen's Twitter account and public criticism from his agent, Scott Boras. Things got more tense in the clubhouse in early July when pitcher Bud Norris was demoted to the bullpen and outfielder Delmon Young was designated for assignment, the latter move disappointing de facto team captain Adam Jones.

There's no direct link between those issues and the club's 5-15 descent from June 29 to July 24, just as there is no way to quantify the impact of future free agency on the team's chemistry when rumors started to fly leading up to the midseason trade deadline. But it's not hard to draw the conclusion that all of that contributed to a loss of focus by a close-knit group of players who usually have their heads in the right place.

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Which brings us to the final week of July, when general manager Dan Duquette unequivocally announced that the team remained committed to making a playoff run and then reeled off a series of roster moves to upgrade the offense and give Showalter greater day-to-day flexibility to manipulate his pitching staff.

The Orioles already were a week into their recovery before the departure of Norris and the deal that added solid all-around outfielder Gerardo Parra on Friday, which might go against the notion that Duquette helped repair the broken team chemistry with last week's flurry of roster activity. But it seems apparent that everything that happened during the final run up to the nonwaiver deadline — including the two dynamic deals that were pulled off by the rival Toronto Blue Jays and the departure of popular teammate Tommy Hunter — served to bring everyone in the Orioles clubhouse back onto the same page.

Maybe it's premature to draw that conclusion since the Orioles have played just a few games since Friday's upheaval and they haven't exactly been playing top teams over the past week and a half. Maybe the 8-2 run they carried into Tuesday night's game against the Oakland A's was just a predictable momentum shift by a team that wasn't going to keep losing like that forever.

That's possible, but the way the Orioles have been winning lately makes you wonder. The day Duquette and Showalter shook up the pitching staff, promising rookie Mychal Givens got the decision in an impressive comeback victory. The next night, young starter Kevin Gausman delivered his second straight strong performance, and Monday night in Oakland, spot starter Tyler Wilson was terrific as the Orioles opened a long West Coast road trip with a lopsided victory over the A's.

It certainly hasn't hurt that Chris Davis had been on a major power trip during the club's recent surge or that the Detroit Tigers and A's are in dismantle mode. But this is the way the Orioles win when they are configured right and feel good about themselves.

Every season is an ongoing chemistry experiment — for better or worse — and it appears that the Orioles finally have settled on the right combination of elements to keep them in playoff contention the rest of the way.

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

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