Orioles pitcher Joe Saunders throws in the first inning against… (PATRICK SMITH, REUTERS )
The Orioles have won seven of their last 10 games and still hold onto the first American League wild-card berth, so why does it suddenly feel like they are stumbling around in the dark as they enter the final week of the regular season?
Well, maybe because they have lost three of their last four and not looked particularly good doing it.
Last night's 4-0 loss to the supposedly uninspired Toronto Blue Jays featured an offensive performance so anxious and inept that it left room to speculate that the young hitters are starting to see the finish line and want to get there too quick. Throw in an uncharacteristically tentative defensive performance and it's hard not to get a little concerned with seven games left to play and the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays still close enough to dash this dream season.
It's certainly no time to panic, of course. The Orioles have had this look before and bounced back quickly. They dropped the first two games of the recent nine-game coast-to-coast road trip to get everyone all hot and bothered, then reeled off six straight victories to solidify their position in the playoff picture.
If they are starting to feel the heat in this franchise’s first real pennant chase in 15 years, they weren’t letting on.
“No, there ain’t none of that in here,’’ said center fielder Adam Jones. “We know what it is. We’re still enjoying ourselves and having fun. We’ve just got to win some games.”
But there was something about Tuesday night's performance that made it more troubling. Maybe it was the four times that Orioles fielders double-clutched before making a late throw. Maybe it was the way the hitters made somebody named Aaron Laffey and his 4.80 earned run average into somebody who looked like Greg Maddux.
Laffey came into the game after walking five batters in an ugly three-inning start against the New York Yankees. He had lasted just 3 2/3 innings and allowed seven baserunners against the Red Sox in his start before that. But the Orioles never gave themselves a chance to find out if he was going to struggle again. They made a habit of swinging at the first or second pitch throughout the early innings, which allowed him to shut them out through 5 2/3 innings on just 64 pitches.
“Just because it appears that way on paper and is a fact doesn’t mean he’s going to do it again,’’ said manager Buck Showalter. “I thought he had good command tonight. The other team is good, too. They’re pitching coach is good and they make some adjustments. That wasn’t the guy tonight. When we fell behind, we got pretty aggressive and that’s not always good with a guy who depends on your aggressiveness to get you out.”
Laffey left the game at that point, but not because of anything the Orioles did at the plate. He had given up just five hits, but the Blue Jays are restricting his workload at the end of a season in which he has pitched nearly 160 innings between the major and minor leagues.
The Orioles' aggressive approach in the early innings was not an anomaly. They have made a habit of trying to attack opposing pitchers early in the count, but usually tend to get more selective as the game goes on. That was not the case on this night, when they continued to flail away, even Blue Jays manager John Farrellmarched out several middle relievers to hold them at bay.
If baseball is a game of momentum, it has shifted decidedly over the past three days. The Red Sox snapped that six-game winning streak with only two runs on Sunday after the Orioles came up short on a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the ninth inning.
The Orioles looked like they were about to overtake the Blue Jays in the nightcap of Monday's doubleheader when they pulled to within a run in the sixth inning and loaded the bases with no one out. They came up empty, but the Jays did not. They loaded the bases in the seventh and broke the game open when J.P. Arencibia hit a grand slam.
The situation isn't dire ... just disturbing. The Orioles came into Tuesday night's game with a 1 1/2-game lead over the Oakland A's for the first wild card slot and a 3 1/2-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels, who are the next closest wild-card contender.
It will take only a few more wins to assure a place in the one-game wild card playoff, but the long-held goal of overtaking the Yankees will require something far more dramatic.
If the first 155 games of the season were any indication, they certainly are capable of doing something special over the next week, but the last thing they ought to do at this point in the pennant race is start trying too hard.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app