The bullpen door swings open as the guitar-laden rock of the mid-00s era Foo Fighters blares over the public address system at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Jim Johnson strides in beneath the angry sound of Pretender. He has just blown a save in his most recent appearance, the first after 35 consecutive saves. His last blown save before that was July of last year.
You know what happens next: handed a two-run lead, Johnson retires the Rays with no trouble in the 9th inning, starts a new streak. That's the new script, because these are the new Orioles, and they don't do things like blow consecutive save chances any more. They win 109 straight games when leading after seven innings. They win the 110th game in a game that started out with them scoring four runs in the bottom of the first inning.
Today, they read from the old script. The ninth inning meltdown was so brutal I do not even wish to speak of it. Reminiscent, in fact, of that 9th inning meltdown that was the last blown save before Johnson started that streak of consecutive saves. This game and that one have in common that I witnessed them from the press box. It was all going so well, and then... it wasn't.
What is the anatomy of a meltdown? The two-run lead becomes one with a home run surrendered to Kelly Johnson, his 7th of the season. Then there are two walks: to Jose Lobaton, batting .254/.306/.388, and Yunel Escobar, batting .225/.286/.357. Why would you walk the 8th and 9th hitters? Of course, JJ did not do this on purpose. He did not want to walk them, but he was even rougher today than Tuesday.
A broken-bat single by Desmond Jennings loaded the bases, and still you may have dreamed of the double play, or at least the weak grounder to cut the run off at the plate. Instead, Matt Joyce doubled, scoring two runs. That was it for Johnson. Darren O'Day came on, and he was no better. Ben Zobrist doubled, scoring two more, and Evan Longoria preserved a hitting streak with a cheap pop-up that Chris Davis could not bring in with a basket catch. The play was scored a double. Intentional walk to James Loney, unintentional walk to Luke Scott with the bases loaded. There's your meltdown.
O'Day threw 17 pitches and only five were strikes. Johnson threw 32 pitches in only a third of an inning, with 15 of those being strikes.
Why, in a game where the Orioles scored six runs, including four in the first inning, was Johnson's presence even necessary? Therein lies the real problem for this team at this time: the starting rotation is an absolute shambles. They are in tatters. As long as this is the case, perhaps it is the Orioles who are the pretenders. They pretend they can contend with an offense that scores ten runs in one game and six runs in the next. Both were losses. They need to win when they score so many runs and their pitching, mostly the starters, are letting them down.
In this game, the problem was Jair Jurrjens, making his 2013 debut. There was reason enough to be hopeful about Jurrjens, who enjoyed success as recently as 2011 and you could argue that his lack of success in 2012 was due to an injury that should now be resolved. That successful Jair was the one you would have seen for two perfect innings to start out the game, with four of the six outs coming on strikeouts.
The bottom of the Rays lineup came along in the third inning to ruin the party, with Jose Molina and Escobar doubling back-to-back. Joyce would homer in the inning as well. When Jurrjens was hit, he was hit hard: his six hits were five doubles and one homer. That hurts. Desperately needing a good outing, some stability, what the Orioles got out of Jurrjens was five and dive, as they have been getting five and dive from their starting rotation for some time. Whether due to injuries or ineffectiveness, they are taxing the bullpen in a way that cannot be maintained successfully, as we see in games like tonight.
Did Jurrjens have bad luck, can he fix this and do better next time, or is this just what he is? Did Johnson have bad luck, or is he hurt? These are questions that will continue to unfold, and the answers could possibly be to the detriment of the Orioles. Jurrjens is more or less the back of the cupboard. There are no reinforcements.
The loss was the last when the Orioles led the game after seven innings since August 8, 2011, their 109 consecutive such wins coming in as the second-most in the expansion era behind only the 1998-99 Yankees, who won 116 in a row.
All of this ruined what ought to have been a nice day, with the Orioles recording 13 hit and scoring six runs. Adam Jones and Davis each had multi-hit games including a homer, the 6th for Jones and the 12th for Davis. Nate McLouth had a two-hit game, walked once, and stole two bases. He is now tied for the American League lead in stolen bases with 13, only having been caught once.
Nick Markakis went 3-5. J.J. Hardy also had a multi-hit game, extending his hitting streak to 13 consecutive games, during which he's batting .360. The team can get hits, get on base, and score runs. But can they score more runs than the putrid rotation and the taxed bullpen may surrender on a given night? For the last four games, the answer has been no.
One other small bright spot for the Orioles was the long relief effort of Tommy Hunter, who has a 0.46 ERA over 19.2 IP in the last 12 games he's pitched. Hunter did not allow a hit today.
Tomorrow, even scoring the runs will be quite a lot to ask for the Orioles, as they go up against tough young lefty Matt Moore of the Rays, who is 7-0 with a 2.44 ERA. Chris Tillman will be tasked with stopping the bleeding by the starters. Can he manage to do that? We'll start to find out at 1:35 on Sunday.