DETROIT -- It's been like this for a long time now -- the better part of six months. For every positive note there seems to be at least one harsh reminder of the grim reality of a frustrating and disappointing season.
For the Orioles, last night's 8-3 loss to the Tigers was at the same time a departure from recent performances and a throwback to the troubled times earlier in the year.
"That's happened to us a number of times this year," manager John Oates said after a pair of two-run homers gave the Tigers a 4-0 lead in the first inning -- and another made it 6-0 two innings later. "Some of those times we've been able to come back, but we were never in this one."
For the record, it was the 41st time this year the Orioles found themselves behind by three or more runs by the fourth inning -- and the 37th time they've lost under those circumstances.
For Dave Johnson, the Orioles' pitcher who ran up a big long-distance bill with the Tigers last night, the loss took the edge off what he hoped would be a positive finish over the last two weeks. "What's to talk about?" asked Johnson. "I don't understand how I can go from throwing as good as I did against the Red Sox [last Thursday] to as bad as I threw tonight.
"It was terrible, just terrible," said Johnson (4-8).
About all the Middle River native has to look forward to now is starting the next-to-last game of the season and participating in the festivities surrounding the Orioles' final weekend at Memorial Stadium.
"It won't be the same as pitching the last game," said Johnson, looking ahead. "But there's going to be a lot of festivities and there will be a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of excitement that last weekend.
"It will be great to have the opportunity to be a part of that before everyone starts turning their sights to the new ballpark."
While he's looking ahead to a fresh start, it's difficult for Johnson not to look back and wonder what went wrong for him personally. He came out of spring training throwing inconsistently, and nothing changed after he spent some time on the disabled list.
"I feel so good physically," the righthander said after last night's game. "But I can't get anything going. This was just another one of the many days I've had this year.
"I can't explain it -- how I could throw the ball so good the last time out, then come back and get clobbered. I felt good warming up, but once the game started I threw nothing but thigh-high fastballs.
"My whole career, if nothing else, I've been consistent throwing the ball. But I haven't been that way this year starting from day one in spring training.
"I know I can't turn my season around with one game," said Johnson, referring to his last start of the season, Saturday against the Tigers. "But it's important to end on a positive note.
"I've got to regroup after the season, maybe look at some films. I've had bad years before, but not because I threw the ball as inconsistently as I have this year. I've got to put it out of my mind and start over again."
Johnson realizes that his chances of pitching for the Orioles in the new park at Camden Yards will almost certainly hinge on how he performs next year in spring training. The club's top winner a year ago with a 13-9 record, he never got in step this year, struggling from the outset.
Johnson's propensity for allowing the long ball, always a concern, has been magnified this year. He has allowed 16 home runs in only 79 innings, which works out roughly to one every five innings, much too often to soothe his earned run average.
"I've got to clear my mind," said Johnson, "and start over again."
Which is what the Orioles seem to do about every week. They have played better while compiling an 11-9 record since starting the stretch of 26 games against Eastern Division opponents that concludes the season.
But that improvement is clouded by the fact that all of the teams they have been playing have been stalled the entire month. Oates has emphasized the importance of winning as many games as possible before putting this season to rest, but games like the one last night keep bringing the overall season back into perspective.
Johnson gave up a pair of two-run homers to Pete Incaviglia (10) and former teammate Mickey Tettleton (a career-high 30) before he had recorded two outs in the opening inning. Lou Whitaker's blast in the fourth (No. 22) was icing on the cake for the Tigers.
This was one of those routine losses that was decided early, leaving only a few blanks to be filled in. Completing a crossword puzzle should be so easy.