In a season that has been marked by failure to hit in the clutch and protect leads, one aspect of the Orioles' struggles largely has been minimized, simply because it hasn't been as easy to quantify.
Watch the Orioles long enough, however, and it's evident that an inability to make key defensive plays has been as crucial as any other ingredient in creating this mess at Camden Yards.
Thursday's 8-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics in front of a disinterested crowd of an announced 15,712 served as the perfect example of the Orioles' season-long defensive ineptitude.
"There's no doubt that we do have to pick it up defensively. We have been able to overcome those mistakes the last few days, but most of the time, it's not going to happen," interim manager Juan Samuel said. "Anytime you give the opposing club four or five outs, those kinds of things are going to happen. We do need to play all-around solid baseball if we're going to continue to make progress."
The Orioles (24-54) had won five of their previous six games but dropped to 3-21-2 in series this season. They finished 3-7 against Oakland (39-41) this year.
While the A's made several impressive defensive stops, Orioles fielders couldn't get out of their own way.
There was the obvious: left fielder Corey Patterson twisting, falling and misjudging a routine fly ball in the second, turning it into a two-run double that gave the A's a 3-1 lead they never relinquished.
"It was hit right at me. Those are the toughest ones," Patterson said. "I think the ball might have been slicing a little bit, kept carrying. Unfortunately, it got over my head. I tried to play it the best I could, but that's what happened."
There was the subtle: two potential double plays that weren't turned and two times an A's runner inexplicably went from first to third on singles to center.
And there were the rapid back-to-back miscues: First baseman Ty Wigginton couldn't catch a pickoff attempt by starter Jake Arrieta in the fifth, which allowed runner Adam Rosales to move to second base.
Kevin Kouzmanoff then hit a sharp grounder to third baseman Josh Bell, who was making his major league debut. Bell got the start at third partially to rest Miguel Tejada, who has been struggling in the field recently and was used as the designated hitter Thursday.
The rookie fielded Kouzmanoff's grounder cleanly but threw wildly to Wigginton, who had to leap off the bag to make sure the ball didn't end up in the seats. Rosales scored two batters later to give the A's a 4-1 lead.
"Just amped up a little bit," Bell said. "I didn't think I put that much on it."
Those were the only two official Orioles errors of the game, giving them 50 on the season, just below middle-of-the-pack in the American League. Heading into Thursday, the Orioles were ninth of 14 teams in the league in fielding percentage (.983) and 10th in defensive efficiency (.683), which measures the percentage of balls put into play that have been converted into outs.
What the stats don't show, however, are the plays that should have been made with a little extra effort or finesse and weren't — game after game throughout this season as the losses mount.
"Pitching and defense wins games, especially if we are not scoring runs, which you tend to focus on," Patterson said. "Bats kind of come and go, unfortunately. But defense and base running is something you do every day."
On Thursday, the Orioles had a chance to turn two double plays and ended up with single outs both times because of slow exchanges between fielders.
Twice they turned double plays started by Bell, but each time second baseman Scott Moore was dangerously upended. The first, in the third inning, led to a collision between Moore and Daric Barton that eventually forced the A's first baseman out of the game with a right knee bruise.
"What we're working on with Scotty Moore is trying to come across the bag a little bit more," Samuel said of his converted third baseman. "We are doing it during practice, but he's still going back to his old tendencies of trying to hang around the bag too long. We'd like to see him come across more on those double plays."
The A's put the game out of reach with a four-run seventh against reliever Frank Mata, who retired just one batter. The A's were aided by a couple of shaky plays courtesy of center fielder Adam Jones.
With one out, Ryan Sweeney hit a RBI single to center, and Kouzmanoff attempted to go from first to third on the hit. With a pinpoint toss, Kouzmanoff likely would have been out, but Jones double-clutched and then unleashed a high and wide throw.
After the game, Samuel addressed the lackluster defense of Jones and Patterson.
"Those guys are definitely better than what we've seen," Samuel said. "Corey, as we know, is primarily a center fielder, so [left field is] not an easy position to play. We understand that. And Jonesy, he's been better, so we do expect those guys to pick it up."
The Orioles' porous defensive effort certainly didn't help rookie Arrieta, who allowed seven hits, four walks and four runs (three earned) in six innings.
"You really can't worry about that. These [fielders] are good enough to where if [the opponents] keep putting the ball in play, more times than not they are going to make the play," Arrieta said. "Some things didn't go our way defensively, but that's how it goes. You just got to continue to work and pitch out of jams as much as you can, and I think there were a few times in the game when I did a good job of that."
Arrieta (2-2) has lost two straight and struggled in his past three starts after winning his first two big league outings.
"I think his command was a little bit better tonight," Samuel said. "He made some good pitches there. His tempo was a lot better tonight. Those areas were improved."
A's starter Trevor Cahill (8-2) allowed Nick Markakis' sacrifice fly in the first and then shut down the Orioles' offense for the rest of his seven-inning outing. He gave up just four hits and a walk and struck out four for his seventh straight win.
The Orioles' offensive highlight against Cahill came in the seventh when Bell singled to left, his first major league hit.
"Amazing. You dream about doing it," Bell, 23, said. "Growing up as a kid, it's your dream to get to the big leagues and have your team win. We didn't get the win, but it felt good to get the first [hit] out of the way."
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