Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton follows through on a pitch to the Toronto Blue Jays during a baseball game in Baltimore, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016.
Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton follows through on a pitch to the Toronto Blue Jays during a baseball game in Baltimore, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. (Patrick Semansky / AP)

The Orioles drew just 15,532 fans to Camden Yards on Monday night for the opener of a critical showdown series against the Toronto Blue Jays, a meager figure by any measure for a home team that has spent most of the 2016 season in first place.

If you want to know just how meager, consider that the woeful Philadelphia Phillies, who entered Wednesday 17 games out of first place in the National League East, drew 16,056 to Citizens Bank Ballpark on the same night with comparable weather.

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Welcome to one of the great mysteries of the 2016 season — why a contending team with a loyal and recently rejuvenated fan following ranked 20th in the major leagues in average home attendance (26,791) through 66 games at Camden Yards.

The Orioles had fallen three games behind the Blue Jays in the American League East race over the weekend, but they entered the Toronto series at Oriole Park still nestled in one of the two AL wild-card slots. They also are on pace to challenge the all-time single-season home run record and they play in one of baseball's most attractive and comfortable ballparks.

Yet they drew a total of just 31,615 to the first two games of the Blue Jays series, which is almost 10,000 fewer fans than the Blue Jays average for one home game in Toronto.

So, what is it? The unpredictable weather that has all but turned the infield tarp into an everyday player? The inconsistent performance of the explosive offense, which can just as easily score one run or a dozen on any given night? A post-Freddie Gray tourism hangover?

What makes the situation even more inexplicable is the fact that the Orioles went into Wednesday with the third-best home record of the 30 major league clubs and came back from New York on Sunday with the AL's second-highest average attendance on the road (31,628). Go figure.

There's really no one answer. The weather has been abominable this summer, with enough games marred by rain, searing heat and nasty thunderstorms to put a serious dent in the walk-up numbers.

The team has been weirdly inconsistent, reeling off three seven-game winning streaks and an 8-1 run during the first half of the season that account for about 40 percent of its victories before sagging to losing records in July and August.

And, yes, Baltimore has gotten a lot of bad publicity over the past 16 months, but if that's the reason, how do you explain the large number of Blue Jays fans who showed up Monday to outshout their orange-clad counterparts?

None of that, however, should have anything to do with the number of fans the Orioles drew for the first two games of a Blue Jays series that had the potential to determine whether the O's would continue to compete for the AL East title or fall by the wayside in the wild-card race.

It would be impossible to accurately measure fan confidence in the team, but it appears that the Orioles have developed something of a credibility problem even though they remain one of the top teams in the AL.

Maybe it's the paper-thin organizational pitching depth. Maybe the on-again, off-again nature of the offense and the instability of the pitching staff have simply created a creeping fatalism that has increased with the recent injuries to three of the club's most important players.

There certainly seem to be more grouchy fans on Twitter complaining about the Orioles' sub-.500 second-half performance.

This is a touchy subject in the Orioles clubhouse, where the players also wonder where everybody went. But they know better than to complain about the fans when there is still a very faithful core that shows up regularly and — if Tuesday night was any indication — cheer a lot louder than their numbers would lead anyone to expect.

"All I can say is, when they're here, it's a lot of fun to play in front of them," said veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy, whose name is chanted by the crowd each night during the announcement of the starting lineups.

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There might be some fan discontent because the Orioles didn't make any dynamic midseason acquisitions, or because baseball operations chief Dan Duquette didn't appear to have the minor league depth to pull off something big by the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. But the Orioles spend more money on free agents during the offseason than just about anybody.

They opened the season with seven straight victories and have been in first place for 111 of the 151 days of the season so far. They have never been more than four games off the AL East lead.

This is a city that spent 14 straight years longing for a winning team and has now gone nearly five seasons without a losing one. Could a big chunk of the Orioles fan base become jaded that quickly?

It's a mystery.

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here."

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