Peter Schmuck: Signs of trouble keep piling up for Orioles

Slumping team could go from first to worst by the end of this road trip

May 30, 2012|Peter Schmuck

If you're one of the Orioles skeptics who has been sitting at home the past two months waiting for the wheels to come off this suddenly competitive team, it looks like it might be time to shake your head condescendingly at all the cockeyed fans who had started to believe this season could really be different.

The Orioles entered Wednesday night's series finale against the Toronto Blue Jays still clinging desperately to a piece of first place in the American League East, but they have undergone a discouraging metamorphosis over the past 10 days that has left them looking again like the divisional lightweight they have been for too long.

Don't misunderstand. This season isn't over, and the Orioles are much better configured to ward off disaster than they have been in any previous season in this century. But they clearly are standing at the precipice.

They got this far on the strength of their surprising starting rotation and surprisingly deep bullpen, but Opening Day starter Jake Arrieta has lost his way and Tommy Hunter just pitched himself out of the big leagues for the second time in a month. If we take manager Buck Showalter at his word that the continued success of the Orioles depends on the health and effectiveness of the starting pitchers, it's fair to say the club has reached a very critical juncture in a season that was going swimmingly until just a few days ago.

It was only this past Friday that everyone was buzzing about the record walkup crowd at Camden Yards for the opener of the Kansas City Royals series. The Orioles went on to draw well all weekend and doubled down on the excitement over the resurgence of the team with the signing of center fielder Adam Jones to a long-term contract extension.

Since that victory Friday night, the Orioles have been stumbling all over themselves. They ended up losing that series to the Royals before Hunter and Arrieta got knocked all over Rogers Centre in the first two games against the Jays.

That isn't exactly the way you build on the renewed confidence of your fan base, and there's more bad news where that came from.

Right fielder Nick Markakis "tweaked" his wrist in his final at-bat of Tuesday night's game and will see a hand specialist on Thursday when the team gets to Florida for the upcoming weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Showalter and the front office have been scrambling the past few weeks to buy time while several key players and pitchers have been rehabbing injuries in Sarasota. Until very recently, the minor league system has delivered just enough help to keep the major league club moving in the right direction, but an injury to Markakis would sorely test that organizational depth.

The Orioles are still two weeks away from knowing what they might expect from Brian Roberts, and Nolan Reimold has just departed for extended spring training. Showalter can take advantage of two offdays over the next five days to stall for the return of Zach Britton from his rehabilitation assignment, but there's no telling what he will bring to the table after months of battling chronic shoulder soreness.

There's no way to sugarcoat this. Things have gotten gloomy, and the big-money teams that were nice enough to stand aside for the Orioles earlier in the season are beginning to squeeze the standings. Going into Wednesday, just 3 ½ games separated first from last in the AL East.

Maybe Orioles fans should just be grateful for a very intriguing first third of the season, but they've gotten a taste of contention and it has to taste pretty good after all they have been through since the last time the club was a real factor in the division.

The good news is that the Orioles stored up some acorns ahead of their first extended downturn of the season.

The bad news is that they've almost used them up.

If they can't right themselves and play competitive baseball for the remainder of the road trip, they might arrive home next week at the other end of the standings.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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