Following two more horrendous losses, the Orioles find themselves sitting at 67-58, 5.5 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East, and 4 games behind the Athletics for the second AL Wild Card spot. The Orioles' record puts them on pace for 86.8 wins, which probably wouldn't have sounded like a disappointment in the spring, but given some of the abysmal ways the team has found to lose of late, it's a lot less than fans could reasonably hope for. It's certainly not going to be enough to secure a playoff berth.
It's not over yet, but it's not looking particularly sunny, either. Let's take a peek at some of the ways that the team could still make its way into October.
What the Orioles can control: Winning
I'll get to the opposition in a moment, but I'm going to assume that securing a wild card spot will take a bare minimum of 91 wins. For the Orioles, that means going 24-13 the rest of the way (a .648 clip over the last 37 games). This isn't an impossible hot streak over such a short period, but for a team in the doldrums, it's going to require an immediate about-face. Every loss is going to make the climb that much steeper. Of note, 20 of the last 37 games are head-to-head matchups against the teams affecting the Orioles' fate (the Rays, Red Sox, Athletics and Indians). Those games will prove even more critical than the rest, as they'll contribute directly to those teams' loss columns, and therefore the Orioles' ability to catch up, or keep up, with them.
What would a red-hot finish for the Orioles look like? To put it simply, it would look a lot more like 2012 and a lot less like the recent past -- which is to say, the bullpen will need to lock down every late lead (the team is currently just 14-22 in one-run games, with Jim Johnson struggling in particular); the offense will need to keep clicking (after a miserable July where they OPS'ed .681, they appear to be hitting again); and the starting rotation will need to remain adequate (which is pretty much what they've been most of the year, aside from the Freddy Garcias and Zach Brittons of the world). But with the quality of opposition remaining on the team's schedule, they'll need to be both lucky and good to rack up the wins necessary to stay in the picture.
What the Orioles can't control (mostly): The opposition
Setting aside the AL East, which would require a 2011-esque collapse from the Red Sox at this point, the Orioles need to keep their eyes on Tampa, Oakland and Cleveland. Cleveland is only a half-game ahead of the Orioles, so essentially, the Orioles just need to keep pace with whatever that team does to get above them in the standings.
But the thing that the Orioles can't entirely control is whether one of Tampa and Oakland finish with 91 wins or less. The teams sit at 72-52 and 71-54, respectively, which means that the Orioles need one of them to finish out with just 19 or 20 wins in their last 37 or 38 games -- essentially, .500 ball the rest of the way. This sounds like a tall order because it is. Excluding the incomplete month of August, the A's worst months have been April and May, both of which they played at a .571 clip. In addition, the Orioles only play the A's three times.
A more realistic target might be the Rays, who have been a streaky team all year long, and against whom the Orioles still have five head-to-head matchups. The Rays have already played two sub-.500 months -- .462 in April and .464 in June. If the Orioles can control their head-to-head matchups against the Rays (better than they have so far this week!) while the team hits another cold spell, it could be their likeliest path to success.
How likely is all of this?
To put it simply, it isn't. You can blame whatever factor you like -- Jim Johnson's struggles, the team's poor record against sub-.500 teams, the struggles of July, the number of starts given away to just-plain-bad pitchers (many of these are related) -- but the Orioles are running uphill in the playoff picture even though they're nine games above .500. Baseball Prospectus, which relies heavily on advanced projection systems, puts the team at 17.4% odds to make the playoffs (not including Tuesday's results). Coolstandings.com, which relies a little more on the current season's outcomes, pegs them at 19.7% (a precipitous drop from nearly 33% just a few games ago). Whichever system you prefer, it's clear that the Orioles are going to need to help themselves, and get probably get some help from outside as well.
It's not all doom and gloom yet -- mostly, but not all -- but this is a pretty realistic roadmap of what it would take for this team to keep playing past Game 162. Let's see what they can do.