It wasn’t all that long ago that Orioles fans were treated to nightly comparisons between the team’s hot April and early May performance and that of the 1966 and 1970 World Series-winning Orioles teams. The 2017 team seemed like it was going somewhere historic.
Why shouldn’t it have felt that way? After all, the Orioles stormed out of the gate to a 22-10 record to start the season, and in a lot of ways it felt like the team had achieved that success without playing the best baseball that it is capable of playing. Could things get even better still once players with a track record of strong performance started playing better?
We may never know the answer to that question, because nearly two months later, we’re still waiting on those players to play better. Without them delivering something closer to what was expected, the Orioles have been in a prolonged funk, with the only history that they have set coming when they tied the MLB record for most consecutive games allowing 5+ runs at 20.
The Orioles have played 83 of the 162 games they will play this season. Their regular season is more than half over. There is a lot of baseball left to be played still, but after the way the team has played since that 22-10 start, this feels more like a threat to O’s fans than something that can be exciting news. They have subsequently gone 18-33 to end up at their current 40-43 record.
For a while, the Orioles appeared to be staying in the division picture, at least at the periphery, even as they swooned. The dark pact that fuels the Red Sox has regained its strength, however, and Boston has taken a commanding lead at the top of the division, leaving the Orioles staring ahead longingly from 8.5 games back. The only good news there may be that the team has stayed ahead of the last place Blue Jays.
In the wild card chase, the lack of strength outside of the division leaders has the Orioles hanging closer, for now, to the second wild card spot. The Orioles are just three games back, although they will have five teams to pass to claim one of those postseason spots, including the three teams that are currently tied for the last playoff spot in the AL.
While it doesn’t feel like the Orioles are far away right now, if they continue to play baseball at a .482 winning percentage clip, that’s going to drop them farther and farther behind as one of the more serious contending teams gets hot or stays as hot as they are now.
Think about it this way. Last year, the Orioles were the second wild card team. They won 89 games to make it in, though as the standings shook out, they would have gotten in with 88 and possibly 87. Since the second wild card was introduced, the lowest win total for a team in that spot was 86 by the 2015 Astros.
What that means is that the 40-43 Orioles would have to go 49-30 over their remaining games to end up at the 89 win record from last season. That’s a .620 pace for the rest of the season. If the league turns out to be a little weaker, like in 2015, then maybe they could get into the postseason by going 46-33 from here on. This modest hope still requires them to play to a .588 winning percentage from now until October 1.
With the Orioles having won just 18 of their last 51, the prospect of their needing to win even 46 out of 79 to make the postseason is a grim one. It’s possible that ship has sailed no matter what trades they do or don’t make to attempt to bolster the roster between now and the end of July.
Orioles GM Dan Duquette seems like a guy who knows that, based on things he’s said while appearing on MASN or O’s radio broadcasts over the last week or so. You can never put TOO much stock into what Duquette says, because there are times where he just says words because he’s expected to say words, and those words may or may not end up having any intersection with an objective truth.
Still, when Duquette comes on during a rain delay on MASN, with Gary Thorne remarking that Duquette sounds like a guy who thinks the Orioles will have a good second half, it’s noteworthy that Duquette’s plan for a hot second half largely consists of, “I know (struggling Oriole’s name) is capable of playing better.”
When it comes to the prolonged slump of Manny Machado at the plate and the ongoing nuclear disaster area represented by Kevin Gausman’s and Chris Tillman’s starts, Duquette is surely not wrong. Those are players whose track records are far, far better than what they’ve shown in 2017.
Yet we’re three months into the season now and the light hasn’t come on yet for those guys. The possibility may exist that, for whatever reason, one or all of them may not be able to return to career form. The Orioles may have to find another way to try to win. They did it in April, so it’s possible to do it for a month. Can it be done for three?
One bit of good news for the Orioles is that Zach Britton is returning from the disabled list today. Or at least, hopefully it turns out to be good news. The Britton of early 2017 did not look like the Britton of 2016.
As capably as Brad Brach replaced Britton as closer, there are still three blown Brach saves that the Orioles lost. The presence of an elite Britton swinging those three games into the win column would put the Orioles in the second wild card spot right now. Are they going to get an elite Britton back? If they do, will that even matter much with the way the rest of the team is falling apart?