After passing daunting May with flying colors, Orioles dealing with first real adversity

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The baseball season is a six-month marathon, but its mojo can change quickly.

Only a week ago, the Orioles were returning to Camden Yards at the high-water mark of their season to date after going an impressive 5-1 against Toronto and the New York Yankees to move to 16 games above .500. Their statement-making May would conclude with a homestand against Texas and Cleveland that coincided with Memorial Day, the traditional checkpoint signaling a young season isn’t so young anymore. Yes, the Orioles are for real and deserve to be taken seriously.

To be perfectly clear, going 2-4 and losing back-to-back series for the first time all year are far from reasons to panic as it’s the kind of stretch every team suffers over the course of a long season. But the unfortunate developments the Orioles endured along the way tamped down enthusiasm for a 16-12 May — against a tough slate of opponents — that legitimized their status as playoff contenders. 

First, general manager Mike Elias revealed starting pitcher John Means and setup reliever Dillon Tate had suffered setbacks that will further delay their respective returns. In the case of Means and the muscle strain in his upper back, the Orioles were dreaming of the upside the 30-year-old lefty could provide coming back from last year’s Tommy John surgery, but he’ll now return no earlier than August, making it even less realistic to count on significant contributions from him this season. Tate is dealing with a stress reaction in his pitching elbow that’s believed to be unrelated to the flexor strain he suffered over the winter, but these aren’t ailments inspiring confidence that the 29-year-old right-hander will step right into the late-inning role he handled effectively last season. 

Last Friday night, Grayson Rodriguez surrendered eight earned runs for the second time in three starts, prompting Baltimore to option the struggling 23-year-old to Triple-A Norfolk. Widely regarded as one of the elite pitching prospects in baseball the last few years, Rodriguez was discussed by many as a Rookie of the Year candidate, but he instead carried a 7.35 ERA back to the International League. Rodriguez was supposed to offer more upside that this starting rotation needs, so we’ll see if a reset with the Tides turns him around. 

Of course, the capper came on Monday when center fielder and leadoff hitter Cedric Mullins suffered a groin strain that landed him on the injured list for an undetermined period of time. The Orioles’ leader in runs batted in and wins above replacement at the time of the injury, Mullins has been critical to their success over the first two months of 2023 and won’t be replaced easily — even if ex-Yankee Aaron Hicks proves capable of lending a hand in the interim. 

Losing three-game sets to both the Rangers and Guardians only added insult to injury. 

“We played really well this month. These last two series weren’t our best,” said manager Brandon Hyde following Wednesday’s loss to Cleveland. “Those are going to happen. We’re not going to win every series the rest of the year and we’re going to have tough games. We’re going to have tough games on the mound; we’re going to have tough games at the plate.

“But I think for the most part this month I was really happy with how we played, and hopefully, we can start the month of June on the right note.”

Hyde’s right, of course, but angst is growing over the state of the bullpen, which is no trivial matter with a league-high 50 of Baltimore’s 56 games having been decided by four or fewer runs this season. The Orioles are 10-6 in one-run games and a league-best 23-13 in games decided by three or fewer, but the strain on the bullpen was evident during the series against weak-hitting Cleveland, especially when poor middle relief turned a seven-run lead into a save situation requiring Yennier Cano and Felix Bautista on Tuesday night and completely wasted a seven-run output against former Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber in Wednesday’s 12-8 defeat. 

Make no mistake, the bullpen has been the biggest key to a terrific 35-21 start, but Bautista, Cano, Bryan Baker, and Danny Coulombe either need more consistent middle-relief help to ease their burden or starting pitchers need to go deeper into games — something Hyde factors into as well — with better results if the early-season prosperity is to continue. Entering Friday, Baltimore ranked 16th in the majors in starter innings pitched and 21st in starter ERA while the bullpen ranked sixth in the majors in ERA and first in WAR, per FanGraphs. Baker and Cano entered Friday in the top nine in the majors in relief appearances this season while Cano is rapidly moving up the list since his mid-April call-up.

Of course, it would help to mix in a few more laughers rather than playing such tight games on a nightly basis, but the Orioles already rank seventh in the majors in runs scored per game. As fun and exciting as this season has been, it’s rarely easy. 

“I think it just shows how tough our bullpen is,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “We haven’t been blowing teams out. We’re having to use our guys in the pen, so I think it just shows how mentally and physically strong they are to be able to come in night in and night out and keep picking us up until we can get things going and have some bigger games and give some guys a rest.”

For now, Elias is evaluating how to keep this club on the right track over the summer months and into September. Changes to the bullpen could be warranted sooner than later with lefty Cionel Perez failing to duplicate his successful 2022 and veteran Mychal Givens struggling dramatically since returning from the IL. No matter who’s pitching, Baltimore needs more dependability from that portion of its bullpen to more easily bridge the gap to the late innings. 

In the big picture, the Orioles were reminded over the last week how fortunes and good vibes can change because of injuries alone, which should send the message to both the front office and ownership to not be too satisfied with where the club currently stands. After a very conservative offseason of only modest additions, the Orioles can’t assume everything will go as planned the rest of the way.

Winning and contending aren’t always linear in the form of some steady five-year progression culminating with a World Series. The current players and coaches as well as fans deserve the opportunity to see more upside — pitching or hitting — added to this club between now and the Aug. 1 trade deadline. And no, that’s not to suggest bleeding the farm system dry as there’s quite a range of outcomes between standing pat and trading away top prospect Jackson Holliday, which isn’t something anyone is seriously suggesting. 

The recent setbacks with Means, Rodriguez, Tate, and Mullins reinforce how this club can no longer be passive unless it’s content missing out on the postseason in such a bear of an AL East with no teams currently below .500. To get where they want to go, Elias and the Orioles must be ready to make bold moves — externally or internally — if the right opportunities present themselves. They certainly should have the resources in the form of money and prospects to make that happen. 

“I can’t tell what [the trade deadline is] going to look like,” Elias said. “We’re certainly doing the work in the warehouse to prepare for a number of scenarios, and that’s what our pro scouting department and our front office does. But so much can change on our end. I hope it doesn’t change on our end, and I don’t think that it will, but we’ve got to see what happens around the league and where we’re at in the standings. 

“I just trust that the front office is doing what it should be doing to prepare for the trade deadline. We’re preparing to be buyers.”

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