The Orioles headed into this week's four-game series at home against the New York Yankees knowing they had a chance to bury one of their closest rivals in the American League wild-card race.
They left Camden Yards for Toronto early this morning clinging to the faint belief that they are still in this race, though they are being passed by other teams as the season's end quickly approaches.
After dropping three of four to the Yankees — including Thursday's gut-punching 6-5 loss before an announced 24,659 — the Orioles find themselves in a tie for fifth in the wild-card race with Kansas City, 2 ½ games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the critical second Wild Card spot.
With only 16 games left — albeit four against Tampa Bay next weekend the Orioles (77-69) are realistically about as far away from the postseason as they have been in 2013.
Perhaps no game in this head-shaking season was as painful to stomach for the Orioles and their fans as Thursday's, when red-hot Danny Valencia hit a two-out, three-run homer in the eighth to tie the game at 5-5 only to see closer Jim Johnson implode in the top of the ninth.
Johnson (3-8) allowed a single, made an error on a sacrifice bunt and then uncorked a wild pitch to allow the go-ahead run to score.
“Being aggressive, trying to get the lead out, the ball slipped and that kind of started the whole inning,” Johnson said of the bunt play, in which he fired the throw into center field. “I get bunted on quite a bit pitching later in the game, and that's something I'm usually pretty good at. I figure if the team wants to give me an out, I'll take an out. And we work on that hard in spring training. And I'll do it again, 100 times out of 100.”
Johnson induced a double play to get out of the inning, but his missteps set the stage for the game's greatest closer, Mariano Rivera, to make one final appearance at Camden Yards in his brilliant career.
Honored before the game with a baseball-and-bat sculpture, the retiring Rivera padded his career-best total against one big-league team by making his 136th appearance, but he didn't get his 80th save against the Orioles.
Instead, with a perfect ninth, Rivera (6-2) was awarded the win via the official scorer's decision because setup man David Robertson, who surrendered the homer to Valencia, was brief and ineffective in his outing.
Either way, the Orioles' gradual disappearance from the playoff picture continues. The credit for that goes to a second half in which the club is 24-26.
Just when they seem ready to push ahead, they fall back — evidenced by a 6-6 record in September and a 4-4 mark on a homestand that began with three of four wins against the Chicago White Sox.
“It's very tough,” Valencia said. “All of these losses at this point are really tough. We need to bounce back. We're a resilient group. This is a big road trip for us, and we just need to play good baseball.”
If you are looking for a bright spot from Thursday, there's this: The Orioles and Yankees got the game in despite a one-hour-18 minute pre-game rain delay, and therefore won't have to return on Monday's mutual off day.
The next time the Orioles are back home is Sept. 24 — for a season-ending six-game homestand. The club was hoping those contests would mean something, but that climb is now further uphill after the disconcerting Yankees series.
"A lot of baseball left," manager Buck Showalter said. "Very easy group of young men to have confidence in. I'm lucky and honored to have a seat to watch it, just like I was tonight. And we'll see what tomorrow brings. We'll get to bed about 4 or 5 in the morning and do it again tomorrow night."
After winning Monday, the Orioles dropped three straight to the Bronx Bombers. They blew leads in the first two losses; on Thursday, they were down by four by the third inning.
Wei-Yin Chen, who pitched well in his last start against the White Sox on Saturday, took several innings to settle down.
He allowed two runs in the second on a home run by former Orioles teammate Mark Reynolds, and two more in the third on a single by Vernon Wells.
Chen began the third by allowing two walks and a double, but wiggled free by getting three consecutive outs. That began a streak of 13 straight batters retired before Curtis Granderson homered to the right-field flag court in the seventh. Chen saved his outing, but the damage was done.
Phil Hughes, the Yankees' disappointing right-hander who hadn't won since July 2, lasted just three-plus innings. But that was more of a tactical decision by manager Joe Girardi than anything forced by the Orioles' offense. It scored just once in those three innings, a RBI single by Manny Machado.
After an error by Eduardo Nunez to lead off the fourth, Girardi replaced Hughes with left-hander David Huff, who originally had been scheduled to start Thursday. A day earlier, though, Girardi switched to Hughes because he believed Huff was more comfortable coming out of the bullpen.
Huff kept the Orioles scoreless and passed the relief baton on an expected course toward Rivera.
But Nick Markakis' 10th homer of the season made it 5-2 in the seventh and Valencia's homer against Robertson made the night so much more interesting.
And yet, the Orioles, as they have for the past two-plus months, ultimately fell flat when victory was attainable.
“We've got some picking up to do,” second baseman Brian Roberts said. “I think we definitely feel a little down right now.”