Is it a funk?
Is it the midsummer blahs?
Or is this as good as it's going to get the rest of the season?
Something's up with the Orioles these days, and it's not their victory total, nor their level of play. A few errors here, a couple of slumps
there and a slide in pitching have slowed the team's pennant run to a crawl.
"We just haven't played the caliber of ball as a team that you have to play to be a good team," said manager Johnny Oates after Sunday's 6-2 loss to the Texas Rangers. "We aren't doing the things you have to do to be a winning ballclub. We are straddling the fence of mediocrity."
Six weeks ago, the Orioles were 15 games above .500 and leading the American League East.
Today, as they head to New York to meet the Yankees and start a 17-game swing of games through the East, they are in second place, four games behind the Toronto Blue Jays and tied with the Milwaukee Brewers. The hard-charging Brewers defeated the Indians in Cleveland last night, 4-0.
To be sure, the Brewers, who had won eight of their previous 10 games, have made an impressive charge to get into the AL East race and pull even with the Orioles.
The Orioles, however, have gone 17-22 since June 12 and dropped to 54-44, the first time they have been just 10 games above .500 since May 31.
"It does feel like we've been mediocre," said Brady Anderson. "It seemed that early on we had really tight play. There were almost no errors and we always had solid hitting. But now, we've hit a spurt where we're not getting the job done."
Oates said, "We've had some bad hitting, some good hitting, some bad pitching, some good hitting, some bad managing, some good managing."
That sounds a lot like mediocrity, and the roots aren't hard to identify.
One of them, though, Oates said, is not last week's death of Sam Hulett, the 6-year-old son of infielder Tim Hulett.
Oates said the Orioles were "affected" by the passing of the youngster, who will be buried today in Springfield, Ill., but that the club has "dealt with it."
"Everyone was pretty devastated with Timmy's loss, but that one game when we came out, I thought we put it behind us," Anderson said. "I'm sure everybody's thinking about it, but for those two or three hours when we're on the field, we have a job to do and we do it."
Apart from the emotional toll of Sam Hulett's death, there are other factors guiding the team's slide.
To start, the Orioles, who continue to lead the league in team defense with five fewer errors than the next closest teams, the Toronto Blue Jays and Minnesota Twins, have been making miscues aplenty lately.
They have committed 13 errors in their past 15 games. For the Los Angeles Dodgers, that's an error total for six or seven games, but the Orioles cannot thrive on that many mistakes. As proof, their record in games in which they are errorless is 42-17; it's 12-26 when they commit an error.
Then, there's hitting, particularly home run hitting.
Once upon a time, the Orioles were second in homers, with 73 in their first 67 games, but since catcher Chris Hoiles went on the disabled list June 21, they have hit just 23 in 31 games, with only two in the last 11 games.
Certain bats, particularly in the middle of the lineup, have gone cold. Cal Ripken, for instance, is in a 12-for-91 slump since his career-high 17-game hitting streak ended June 29. He also hasn't homered in 29 games, the second longest power drought of his career.
Randy Milligan is batting .197 in his past 32 games, but has stayed productive by drawing walks. He has drawn a walk in 30 of his past 34 games and is 10th in the league in on-base percentage.
Conversely, Glenn Davis and Joe Orsulak have been on tears. Davis has a 10-game hitting streak and has raised his average 86 points in six weeks, though he has just seven homers.
Orsulak, a strong candidate for AL Player of the Month honors, has become the regular right fielder on the strength of his sizzling bat. He, like Davis, has hit in 10 straight games and has 16 multi-hit games in his past 26 starts. Orsulak is batting .391 in July and has jacked his batting average from .218 on June 9 to a team-high .316.
Perhaps the most troubling area has been the pitching, where starters and relievers alike have shone or looked subpar, often from appearance to appearance.
Ben McDonald, for instance, appeared to be showing signs of breaking out of the rut of giving up homers with a two-hit shutout of Texas just after the All-Star break, only to give up two home runs to the Rangers in his most recent start.
Mike Mussina preceded McDonald with a one-hit dazzler over the Rangers in Arlington, then followed it with the two worst consecutive starts of his career.
Rick Sutcliffe, the staff leader in innings and complete games, has pitched well in spots, but has a four-game losing streak to show for it. Only Arthur Rhodes, who wasn't supposed to be with the ballclub this season, has pitched consistently in the past three weeks, with two wins and a no-decision.
Relievers Todd Frohwirth, Alan Mills and Gregg Olson have been disappointing of late, though the struggles of the starters have taken some of the heat off them.
Perhaps the change of scenery will shake up the Orioles, as they leave the West and Texas, Minnesota and Chicago for New York, Boston, Detroit and Cleveland and a mid-August showdown in Toronto.
"They're all crucial now. We just have to win," Anderson said.