Adam Jones strikes out against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night. (Patrick Smith, Getty Images )
If you think that numbers don't lie, you might want to look at the stat sheet and try to figure out how the Orioles lineup can be so good on paper and look so bad in clutch situations.
It's right there in black and white. The Orioles entered Tuesday night's game against the Tampa Bay Rays ranked third in the major leagues in both batting average and slugging percentage with runners in scoring position, but lately they've been on top of the world in frustrating their fans by making the least of promising scoring opportunities.
Monday night's important series opener was an extreme example, of course. The Orioles left 15 runners on base and squandered a series of early-inning scoring opportunities in a game that might have been won with one more patient at-bat and one more clutch hit. Instead, the best Orioles offensive lineup in many years came up empty whenever there was a golden opportunity to deliver a knockout punch to Rays ace David Price.
And there were a raft of them.
In four consecutive innings, the Orioles stranded runners who reached third base with one out. Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts, both very good situational hitters, helped fuel that futility with a string of four unproductive at-bats in which they saw a combined seven pitches from a laboring 2012 Cy Young Award winner who allowed 12 baserunners in five innings.
They were just doing what the Orioles have been doing all year, swinging the bat aggressively and trying to put up crooked numbers, but they fell victim to what can only be described as a rope-a-dope performance by a pitcher who wasn't his usual dominating self.
It didn't stop there. Adam Jones, who is having a terrific season at the plate, nearly screwed himself into the ground overswinging in a late-inning RISP situation in which a well-placed single might have turned the tide in his team's favor. It was a discouraging night all around, considering the Orioles knocked Price all over the ballpark and still lost ground in the standings.
Tuesday night’s 7-4 loss, which pushed the Orioles back another game in the American League wild card derby, wasn’t any more fun. It also featured a pivotal double play ball by Roberts in a no-out, bases loaded situation in the seventh inning, but the importance of it was obscured by a late-inning bullpen blowup.
None of this has been lost on manager Buck Showalter, though he correctly pointed out that there also were a number of hard hit outs that added to the level of frustration and that hitting against the top pitchers in the major leagues is no picnic.
Still, the case can be made that the big boppers in the Orioles lineup spend too much time in crush mode, which might explain why they left 42 runners on base in the four games leading up to Tuesday night. It also might explain why they've lost four one-run games in the past nine days and could not build on early-inning leads in several of those losses.
Showalter concedes that point, but he's not sure that there's anything to be done about it or that he wants anybody to change his approach. He said Tuesday that the quality of the talent that has been assembled in the Orioles lineup is what makes it possible for fans to be both enthralled and disappointed.
"I love the things we are doing, whether it's Adam or [somebody else],'' Showalter said. "Everybody is different. We weren't talking about this in the past. Why? Because the expectation wasn't there. They've created them because of how good they are and how good they are becoming day by day. That's why the expectations are there. You aren't having those expectations of Joe Schmoe."
The Orioles certainly have raised the bar over the past couple of seasons — and the fans certainly enjoy the fact that they lead the major leagues in home runs — but the object of the game is to win, not to see how many times you can hit the ball over the fence. If the Orioles are willing to simply live and die by the home run, there's a very good chance that the quality of pitching over the final American League East-heavy quarter of the season will neutralize the Orioles enough to keep them out of the playoffs
Showalter knows that and sometimes has to walk that fine line between encouraging aggressiveness and insisting on situational awareness.
"It's one of the reasons why we've competed as well as we have,'' he said. "If you want to go first to third last night, Matt [Wieters], on that ball down the line, go for it. Let's go. Know you are going to be supported. There might be some times behind the scenes where we go, 'OK, that was good aggressive, but let's think about what that did. That took the bat out of this guy's hands.' I want them to be themselves. I want them to let it rip. This is not a game you play timidly. It will eat you up if you do."
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.