Overachieving Orioles having growing pains
One theory is the young Orioles had been playing over their heads and sooner or later would come back to earth. The other is that this is a team with enormous potential and merely going through growing pains.
It's probably a little of both.
Regardless, the Orioles have lost seven of their last eight games and head to Boston on Tuesday having fallen out of first place in the American League East.
Before they lost to the Rays on Friday night, the Orioles had held or been tied for first since May 6. Baltimore lost two of three at Tropicana Field over the weekend, allowing Tampa Bay to sit alone atop the division.
Realistically, it was a stretch to believe that the Orioles could continue their superb start, not in a division with the Rays, Yankees, Red Sox and dark-horse Blue Jays.
The Orioles haven't had a winning season since 1997, when Davey Johnson took them to the postseason as division champs. Those were the days when a ticket to Camden Yards was one of the toughest in the Major Leagues.
With general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter at the controls, the turnaround is obviously under way. But even as the Orioles became one of the AL's most exciting stories in April and May, especially for their win-starved fans, to call them a team of destiny is premature.
Watching the Orioles lose to the Rays, 8-4, on Sunday afternoon was painful, but typical of a young team, one that leads the American League in errors, with 51.
Jake Arrieta, the Orioles' Opening Day starter who's been in a mystifying funk lately, retired the first nine Rays in order on 36 pitches. But things fell apart quickly in the fourth inning, when he gave up two runs, and in the fifth, when he walked three batters.
B.J. Upton's ringing two-run double finished Arrieta's day.
The 26-year-old right-hander allowed just two hits but walked four. In his last 31 2/3 innings, he's allowed 28 free passes.
Arrieta, now 2-7 with a 5.53 ERA, seemed almost in a daze 30 minutes after the game. His persona was so similar to that of other young, talented players trying to cope with the cruel reality of baseball.
"Only giving up two hits -- that's a frustrating way to leave the game," Arrieta said. "Putting four guys on base for free against a team like this that's so patient and waits you out, that's just something you cannot do."
As his teammates packed for their flight to Boston, Arrieta kept searching for answers. To his credit, there was no sugarcoating, no lame excuses.
"That's pretty uncharacteristic. My command has been so much better," he said. "They weren't hitting me; I was letting them on base for free. I've been able to pound the zone, but I got into a point of the game when things began to unravel for whatever reason.
"This is really uncharted territory for me. I haven't really had stretches like this where I pitched so inconsistently."
Arrieta echoed his the entire team when he said, "I've got to stay positive, because if I continue to get frustrated, it's only going to continue to be a struggle."
That the Orioles have improved so much this year is no surprise, not with Showalter at the helm.
The late George Steinbrenner often talked about Showalter's work ethic and how, when he managed the Yankees (1992-95), he prepared his players for the season during Spring Training.
At each of his three previous stops -- with the Yankees, D-backs and Rangers -- there was marked improvement under his guidance.
He refuses to say that his players, after their recent skid, are frustrated.
"They've got a lot of confidence," Showalter said. "They're a mature group. They understand. We'll get it going again."
Alone in his office an hour before Sunday's game, Showalter talked about how important pitching is -- baseball's ages-old bottom line. In so many words, he said it's very difficult to go up against a team such as the Rays, who are so deep in pitching.
By comparison, after Sunday's loss, Orioles' pitchers have a 6.77 ERA in their last seven starts.
At the same time, baseball is all about highs and lows and allowing the latter to dominate.
"We just have to be competitive," Showalter said. "We're going to have to start doing some things that we've been doing to get to this point. We've got to get off a little better with our starting pitching. It's all about phases, stages."
Of course, injuries have taken their toll.
Right fielder Nick Markakis, whose 26 RBIs are the second most on the team behind Adam Jones' 34, underwent surgery on his right wrist on Friday and could be out for as long as four weeks. He joins seven teammates on the disabled list, and on Monday, Jones -- among the AL leaders with a .315 batting average and 16 homers -- remained in Florida and was to undergo an MRI on a sore right wrist.
Jones, incidentally, signed a six-year, $85 million contract extension a week ago.
Showalter is amazed at the number of injuries throughout the Majors this season.
"Most teams have challenges physically," he said. "Your depth is always tested over a season. We've just got to stay within ourselves. There's a fine line between trying to make something happen and pushing the envelope when it's not there."
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.