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The AL East is giving the Orioles a hard time this season

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Whenever the Orioles have struggled, a series with a division rival has seemed to coincide. Between the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, those foes are putting Baltimore in a bind.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a formula for success in baseball. If you want to have a good season, you need to start by beating the teams in your division. They’re the ones you play the most, and the ones you need to get by.

This season, division games have been a formidable hurdle for the Orioles. Whenever the Birds have struggled, a series with a rival has seemed to kick start the skid. Or add to it. Or somehow complicate an already challenging situation.

So far, the Orioles’ record against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays — they haven’t played Toronto yet — has exemplified this. Baltimore is 8-18 against those teams, a .308 winning percentage. That’s a 49-win pace over 162 games. That’s bad. Consider that the Orioles are 14-24, or at a percentage of .368, against everyone else, and that illustrates how the division rivals have kept the O’s in check.

It’s been a tough season against everyone. Division series, however, have been a particular problem, and the numbers get even more uneven when considering that three of those eight wins came to start the season against a Red Sox team that was still scuffling out of spring training. Baltimore has been outscored by division foes 150-83 in those 23 games since. Against teams outside the AL East, the O’s have been outscored “only” 171-157.

Division series have been the bringers of bad tidings for Baltimore. When the Orioles lost the team-record 14 straight games, it was a sweep at the hands of the Rays, one in which they lost by scores of 13-6, 9-7 and 10-1, that got things started. When they followed up a 3-0 start by dropping six of their next seven, it was a series that saw them swept by the Red Sox that defined the skid.

And now that Baltimore’s road losing streak — that narrative of the O’s being road warriors feels like it was long ago now — has reached 16 games, it’s yet another sweep against the Rays that’s pushed them three of the last four games of the way.

This isn’t to say that the Orioles have been superb against everyone else — the Twins and White Sox have given them plenty of fits as well — but the games haven’t seemed to be as much of an ordeal. Baltimore is .500 against Oakland. The O’s are 3-4 against the Mariners. They have winning records against the Rangers and Indians. The results have been cheerier.

In the division, meanwhile, they can’t beat the Rays, they’ve dropped six of their last seven against the Red Sox, and even though they’re 4-6 against the Yankees, New York has outscored the O’s a whopping 53-31.

The main reason why these stats are so uneven is the reason Orioles fans face each season: the AL East is just plain good. The division can feel like the SEC of Major League Baseball, with the Orioles playing the part of a school like Vanderbilt, and that’s the case this season too.

The Rays are, by record, the best team in baseball. The Red Sox were, by record, the best in the game. The Yankees have scuffled all season, but still have a talented, expected-to-compete roster. And the Orioles haven’t faced Toronto yet, which is over .500 and in the wild card chase.

There are eight teams in the sport that have scored 320 runs so far this season. Three are in the American League East.

The Orioles, though, haven’t done themselves any favors. They’ve played 12 teams, and totaled a cumulative OPS of over .700 against six of them. Of the other six, only two teams have held the O’s below .600.

Those two teams? The Rays and Yankees.

Pitching hasn’t been too different a story. The Orioles have posted their highest ERA, a whopping 8.47, against the Rays. Baltimore has an ERA of over 6 against two other teams, the Mets (7.08) and Nationals (7.50), but that list includes a third team in the Red Sox at 6.05 if the first three games — a sweep that, considering the season Boston is experiencing compared to the one the Orioles are enduring, feels like the year’s greatest outlier — are ignored.

With 50 games remaining against division foes, the Orioles are in a sink-or-swim position. Either they crack the code against their rivals and salvage something from this season, even if it’s something as minor an objective as avoiding 100 losses, or the trend continues, and another year of triple-digit losses is probably too tough to avoid.