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Orioles notes and observations (deflating series, Johnson, Valencia, O'Day)

After covering baseball for years, I’m always reluctant to proclaim the sky is falling on a team or, as Orioles manager Buck Showalter likes to say, pull the dirt up around them. One of the beauties of the sport is its length and the importance of staying as consistent as possible through six months of play. A bad game, bad series, bad week easily can be wiped away by a well timed hot streak.

But it really is hard to imagine the Orioles can rebound from this 1-3 series against a vulnerable Yankees team. All three losses were avoidable. And the Orioles couldn’t close them out.

Now they head on the road to three tough places to play – Toronto, Boston and Tampa – with the season in the balance. Friday’s game features Jason Hammel, who is coming off injury and hasn’t started since late July. And the Orioles will be without set-up reliever Darren O’Day, who leads the club in ERA, for at least the Toronto series and potentially the rest of the season with an undiagnosed soreness in his fingers.

This certainly looks like the beginning of the end.

I asked Showalter on Thursday night about whether his club’s resolve will really be tested after these losses to the Yankees and the daunting road trip ahead. He said he believes he saw what his club is made of during their comeback Thursday after trailing by four runs.

"I think your resolve is proven by coming back and tying the game up at 5-1,” Showalter said. “Resolve is not an issue here with these guys.”

There comes a time where effort and Showalter’s beloved “want-to” only takes a team so far. That time seems to be now. This club is 12-17 since Aug. 11.

They’re still only 2.5 games out of the second wild-card spot, so it may be premature to get the shovel out. But there are two other clubs – the Cleveland Indians and Yankees – in between them and the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Kansas City Royals have the same record as the Orioles (77-69). A really tough climb is ahead.

** Closer Jim Johnson has had his struggles throughout the year. That’s been well-documented. And last night he uncorked a wild pitch to score the winning run. According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, Johnson had never allowed a run to score on a wild pitch in his career.

But what struck me is the error on the bunt that set up the winning run. That’s the second time this year that Johnson, one of the club’s best fielding pitchers, has flubbed a bunt play leading to a loss. The other was July 5, also against the Yankees.

“I feel like I have made a lot of those plays,” Johnson said. “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, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting storylines of the upcoming offseason. He has one more year of arbitration remaining and likely could command roughly $9 million or more in 2014. He’ll have more saves in the past two seasons than any other closer in the American League. But do you pay that kind of money for a closer who has nine blown saves and eight losses in the previous season? Do you pay that kind of money for a closer, period?

** Danny Valencia is ridiculously hot at the plate right now, batting .548 (23-for-42) since Aug. 4. Most of those at-bats have come against left-handers. But, at this point, I see no reason not to have him serve as the full-time DH until he cools down. It’s not like there is a left-handed hitter on the bench that’s making it a tough call. Valencia’s homer Thursday came against a righty, though David Robertson is actually better against left-handed batters in his career.

** O’Day has not yet been ruled out for the season, but he will miss at least the Toronto series. And because no one knows what is causing the finger pain, it may take a while for the situation to be resolved. Honestly, O’Day is one of the more invaluable players on this team, and this is a big blow. His absence creates a major void in a bullpen that is already on shaky ground. He’s signed through 2014 (with an option for 2015). Here’s hoping this is a temporary ailment and not something that will affect him beyond this season.

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