O's are better than last year, but not as good

If you're having trouble keeping your eyes open right now, you probably stayed up into the early hours of Saturday morning waiting for the Orioles to register another one of those classic marathon victories that characterized their magical 2012 season.

Unfortunately, that was then. Now is another story … and not a particularly happy one.

The only thing classic about Friday night and Saturday morning was the length of the game, which set the record for the longest game – by time – in Orioles history. It's fair to give the team credit for grinding out the equivalent of two full games and refusing to lose for almost seven hours, but the fact that they finally did lose and never really mounted a serious offensive challenge in the 11 innings after the Tampa Bay Rays tied such a critical game cannot be ignored.

Did the bullpen shine and display unbelieveable resolve and toughness, just as it did during three tense games in Boston? Of course it did. Do the Orioles deserve credit for putting themselves in position to compete for a postseason berth for the second year in a row? Of course they do. But it's impossible to overlook the disappointing reality that this is a tired team that months ago lost touch with Buck Showalter's pass-the-baton philosophy at the plate.

Of course, if the Orioles had won in the 18th inning instead of lost, O's fans would be making comparisons to the amazing 17-inning victory at Fenway Park last season in which Chris Davis took the mound for the final two innings and dazzled the Red Sox with his 90-plus fastball and surprisingly effective changeup. Or they could have pointed to the 18-inning victory in Seattle – almost a year earlier to the day – that moved the Orioles into a first-place tie in the American League East and extended their amazing string of extra-inning victories to 14.

The importance of the series opener against the Rays in this crazy, mixed-up double-wild card format would have made the game a memorable one no matter what the circumstances if the Orioles had won, but the way they were swinging the bats in those early morning hours left no indication that the game ever would have ended if the Rays hadn't cobbled together a couple of hits off Bud Norris in the bullpen's 13th inning of work.

The Orioles certainly didn't do anything in Saturday's equally damaging 5-1 loss to dispute that unhappy notion.

To be fair, the franchise will have a right to be proud when the Orioles register their next victory to make this their second straight winning season, but it became apparent before the All-Star break that this year's team did not possess the mojo that made 2012 so magical and memorable.

The most obvious statistical difference has nothing to do with the team's offensive performance. Jim Johnson was almost impermeable during a 2012 season in which he led the majors with 51 saves. He may save 50 again this year, but his nine blown saves and his inconsistency late in the season has been a major factor in the Orioles' inability to play consistent winning baseball.

The Orioles clearly built a more talented and productive lineup than the one that somehow scored just enough runs at the right times last year to help the team set a major league record for winning percentage in one-run games. Davis is having an MVP-caliber season. Adam Jones has again moved to a new level of production. Manny Machado has been a revelation both at the plate and at third base.

If this makes any sense at all, this year's Orioles are a better team than last year's Orioles, but they aren't as good.

Something happened as the O's moved into the summer months that changed the winning chemistry Showalter had fostered since the exciting end of the 2011 season. Maybe all the great individual offensive numbers that Davis, Jones and Machado were putting up changed their focus. Maybe it was the way the team fell in love with its major league-leading home run total.

Like Narcissus in Greek mythology, it's as if they looked at their reflection and became so enamored with it that it became their undoing.

That comparison might seem like a stretch, but at this point, it's going to take some Olympic gymnastics from the baseball gods to get the Orioles into the playoffs.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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