BALTIMORE — The Orioles had a chance to stop the bleeding on Sunday after a difficult 1-4 start to an eight-game homestand.
Waiting out a rain delay of more than four hours on the heels of two of their worst losses of the season, the Orioles watched first-place Toronto squander another late lead in a loss at Cleveland. Second-place Boston fell hard in Detroit. Even Seattle — who entered the day one game behind Baltimore for the second wild-card spot — blew a three-run lead in the ninth inning to lose to lowly Milwaukee.
A victory in the finale of the four-game set with Houston would have shrunk the Orioles’ American League East deficit to just 1 1/2 games and increased their lead over the Mariners. It wasn’t a must-win game, but it represented a valuable opportunity to salvage a four-game split, exhale, and regroup after allowing an unseemly 27 runs to the Astros the previous two nights.
Yovani Gallardo gave the Orioles exactly what they needed after poor performances by Wade Miley, Chris Tillman, and a host of long relievers had decimated the bullpen to the point that infielder Ryan Flaherty pitched the ninth inning of Saturday’s loss. Enduring two different rain delays, Gallardo allowed one run over the first four innings on Sunday.
Then, the fifth came.
Two-time Gold Glove third baseman Manny Machado bobbled a chopper off the bat of Teoscar Hernandez for an error to begin the inning. Four batters later, a Carlos Correa line drive to right-center went off the glove of right fielder Chris Davis for a two-run double that would give the Astros a 4-1 lead. Manager Buck Showalter said after the game that his normal first baseman had lost the ball in the lights, but the two defensive miscues led to three runs for Houston.
The bottom of the fifth wasn’t much better as Adam Jones singled home Nolan Reimold to make it a 4-2 deficit, but the center fielder overslid second base as he advanced on the throw home and was then tagged out, ending the inning and adding a baserunning mistake to the poor defense in the top half of frame.
Taking nothing away from a strong eight-inning performance by 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, the Orioles cost themselves dearly in that fateful inning. Of course, it didn’t help that the bats largely fell silent again after the Baltimore pitching hadn’t given them much of a chance on Friday or Saturday.
Gallardo deserved better over his seven solid innings of work, but the Orioles have done whatever it takes to lose on this current homestand. In a two-game sweep against Boston, little went right across the board. After a 13-5 blowout victory over the Astros in the series opener, the Orioles made major league history Friday night by homering four times before recording a single out and amazingly lost by seven as Miley and the bullpen surrendered a combined 15 runs.
Despite falling to just 11 games over .500 for the first time since June 22, the math tells you the Orioles are still in fine shape and only a modest winning streak away from potentially being back in first place. But it doesn’t feel that way with a maddeningly inconsistent offense, a shorthanded bullpen, and a starting rotation reverting to its first-half form after showing some improvement since the All-Star break.
Since a four-game winning streak in which they swept Cleveland and won the opener of a series with Colorado to improve to an AL-best 58-40 on July 25, the Orioles have gone 9-16 and have been passed by both the Blue Jays and the Red Sox in the division.
It isn’t panic time yet, but losing the final three games against Houston — a team that came to Baltimore having lost four in a row and 13 of its previous 19 — felt alarmingly reminiscent of last year’s four-game home sweep to Minnesota that led to a stretch of 12 losses in 13 games ending any real chance of making the postseason. Of course, the Orioles are in better position now than last year at that point, but their 2016 season appears to be at a crossroads.
The offense has slumped for the better part of six weeks now, once again too dependent on the home run. Dating back to the last West Coast trip, the last six hits apiece from Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo have all been homers, illustrating the largely all-or-nothing performance from the lineup.
The health of No. 1 starter Chris Tillman remains in question despite him saying his shoulder felt fine after his worst start of the season on Saturday. Acquired at the deadline to fortify the rotation, Miley is sporting a 9.53 ERA in his four starts with the Orioles.
The bullpen is once again without Darren O’Day, who doesn’t appear particularly close to returning from a strained rotator cuff. Closer Zach Britton has been nothing short of brilliant all year, but getting to him is becoming increasingly difficult with fellow All-Star reliever Brad Brach struggling since the break.
The Orioles had been nearly invincible at Camden Yards this season in winning 70 percent of their games there, but they no longer have the best home mark in the majors after dropping six of their last seven in Baltimore.
No, things aren’t always as bad as they seem when a team is struggling like the Orioles are right now. The good news is that they didn’t lose any ground Sunday with their competitors all falling.
But instead of stopping the bleeding and starting to reverse their recent fortunes, the wound grew deeper in another frustrating loss.