Just when things were starting to look up for the Orioles, they banged face-first into their glass ceiling again this weekend.
They battled back to the .500 mark with an impressive five-game winning streak at Camden Yards, but faced with an opportunity to rise above sea level for the first time since mid-April — and a very ripe opportunity to beat one of the hottest young pitchers in the game late Friday night — they showed again why they are not a winning team.
If that seems unusually harsh just a couple days removed from an uplifting winning streak that included two walk-off victories, let me put it another way. Those exciting wins over the Kansas City Royals notwithstanding, this team still does not seem to understand what it takes to be a consistent winner.
This is not meant to imply that the 2011 O's are a disappointment or simply the latest in a long series of them. They are not.
If you polled all the so-called experts on Opening Day, you likely would have come up with the consensus view that the Orioles would hang around the .500 mark this year and that would be considered significant progress in Buck Showalter's first full season as manager. Combine that outlook with the list of key injuries that have befallen the club during the first two months of play and you could make the case that they have shown admirable resiliency and character.
What they haven't shown, however, is that undefineable quality that allows winning teams to take advantage when they are presented with opportunities to win. Call it killer instinct. Call it a winning attitude. Call it whatever you want. The Orioles have not been able to call on it at those key moments that turn a .500 team into a potential wild-card contender.
Let's not live too much in the past, but most O's fans probably remember that five-run lead that got away in New York in April and the six-run lead that evaporated against the Red Sox two weeks ago. Winning teams don't blow six-run leads, even at Fenway Park. Chalk those losses up to an inconsistent bullpen, if you want, but it doesn't stop there.
The offensive approach remains incoherent. In that discouraging loss at Fenway, the Orioles could have turned the game into a complete blowout if they had simply allowed Daisuke Matsuzaka to completely self-destruct. Instead, they turned favorable counts into escape routes and left the door open just enough for the Red Sox to come back in the late innings.
In their 15-inning game against the Yankees at Camden Yards on May 18, the Orioles had the bases loaded twice (and a total of 11 base runners) after the 10th inning, but could not get a big hit in four innings against reliever Hector Noesi, who was making his major league debut under intense circumstances.
The loss Friday night may have been more forgiveable. Oakland left-hander Gio Gonzalez entered the game ranked fifth in the American League with a 2.20 ERA, and it was clear from the start that he had terrific stuff. If the O's had gone down quietly for seven or eight innings, no one would have been any the wiser, but he tried to offer the game to them and — once again — they refused to accept it.
Gonzalez struck out the side impressively in the first, but allowed 11 base runners over the next four-plus innings. He loaded the bases and walked in a run with no outs in the second, and looked ready to crack, but the Orioles quickly let him off the hook with a strikeout and one of four double-play balls in the first six innings.
Strangely, the Orioles have shown the ability to hit with runners in scoring position, yet have been particularly ineffective when it comes to exploiting bases-loaded opportunities. In a lot of cases, that has been the result of them being too aggressive against struggling pitchers. It's also hard to discount the fact that Vladimir Guerrero is the only hitter batting above .300 and just two other full-time players are hitting better than .270.
This was supposed to be a better offensive team, and maybe it will be when Brian Roberts and Derrek Lee get back from the disabled list and Nick Markakis finds himself at the plate. It definitely needs to be a smarter offensive team, and maybe it will be when all the components are back in place and everyone can relax and start "passing the baton," as Showalter likes to say.
The O's also are looking forward to the return of injured starter Brian Matusz, which should solidify the rotation and take some heat off the bullpen.
The rest of the American League East has been polite enough to wait around for some of that to happen, but it's still up to the Orioles to raise the roof.
Listen to Peter Schmuck on "The Week in Review" on Friday's at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and WBAL.com.