Two short years ago, the Orioles lost their 120th game to fall to a 47-73 record. They were in fifth place in the American League East, 27 games out of first place.
That game, an 8-4 loss in Oakland, represented the only game that season where Brian Matusz passed what I have come to call the Brian Matusz Test: where a starting pitcher with a bad ERA ends the game with a lower ERA than he started. He gave up six earned runs in 6.2 innings to lower his ERA from 8.77 to 8.63. He made twelve starts in 2011 and this was the only one where his ERA went down.
The game's leadoff batter was Nolan Reimold, who went 0-4 and had a .699 OPS at game's end. The ninth-place batter was Josh Bell, playing third base, who ended the game with a .420 OPS. Robert Andino was the second baseman. Mark Reynolds was the first baseman. Vladimir Guerrero was the $7.5 million designated hitter. Matt Wieters had a .707 OPS. OK, not everything is better. Wieters sits at a .704 OPS after Wednesday's game.
The Orioles starting rotation in 2011 was even worse than this year's starting rotation has been. They ended the season with a 5.39 ERA in the rotation and a 4.92 ERA overall. Kevin Gregg was in the bullpen. Tommy Hunter was still a starter. Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, and Chris Tillman all started double-digit numbers of games and were generally mediocre-to-terrible.
Wednesday evening's loss to the Diamondbacks dropped the 2013 Orioles to a 65-55 record. They are in third place in the AL East, six games back of the division leader. They are three games out of the second wild card position. Bad as it has been to watch three straight walk-off losses, and as bad as it has been to see Jim Johnson blow three consecutive saves two separate times this season, Orioles fans have endured worst in the not-too-distant past. Before last season came along, we would have been thrilled to see our favorite team sitting where they are right now.
There are 42 games still to be played. The Orioles would need to go 28-14 to equal last year's record, which may not even be good enough to qualify for the playoffs. Such a run was possible for last year's team, but can it be done this year? As the nine losses in games when leading after eight innings shows, this team is not last year's team.
There is no Manny Machado in the minors waiting to make an impact. There is no Nate McLouth playing his way into an open spot. There's only a starting rotation where even the most winning pitcher is a giant question mark and a bullpen that has regressed almost exactly how the doubters of the 2012 O's said that it would.
Still, a run is not out of the question. It only takes getting hot at the right time to propel them into the postseason, as their Camden Yards neighbors can attest. Do you think if they fired the hitting coach and replaced him that they could have a good last month and postseason? Maybe a member of the Harbaugh family is available for a consultation.
There are higher expectations for the team now, which is not a bad thing. Perhaps the worst thing about all the years of losing was having to take solace in whatever small victories came along.
As the clock struck midnight on the east coast around when the last out was recorded in that 120th game two years ago, we might have thought that at least it was nice that Robert Andino got two hits. Maybe he'd start getting hot. He would have multi-hit games in each of the next two games (also losses for the O's) and would go on to hit in ten straight games. Second baseman of the future!
These are the things that matter when winning and losing have ceased mattering. They are the things that matter when losing might even matter more than winning, because if the team's going to suck, it might as well get as high of a draft pick as possible, so that it can draft Stephen Strasburg instead of Matt Hobgood.
There are stakes now, something to lose, which means that fans must be prepared to be disappointed. Still, they are ten games over .500, and even with their problems, they should hold on a comfortable level above .500. There are many baseball fans out there who have it far worse than that, as we had it far worse ourselves just two years ago.
The team leader in OPS at year's end was Reynolds with an .806. He was also the RBI leader with 86. The ERA leader was Jeremy Guthrie with a 4.33. We were heartbroken when an 8th-inning reliever (Koji Uehara) was traded. He did have sweet sideburns, true. Chris Davis having 77 home runs and counting over the past two seasons is a touch sweeter.
The time may very well have arrived to press the panic button on this year's Orioles. Even having something to panic about is better than it used to be. There was no point panicking about the Orioles two years ago because they were just bad. There was nothing surprising or disappointing about that. They were yet another bad Orioles team. The draft was one of the highlights of the year. The best game of the year was winning their 69th game on the last day of the season.
Great as it was to witness the birth of the Curse of the Andino, actual playoff games at Camden Yards were so much better.
The 2013 O's may come up just a bit short, or more than a bit. They may even make the playoffs yet again. Whatever ends up happening, there is always the old baseball cliche: There's always next year. Here in Birdland, a better next year is no longer the dream of a fool.