The Baltimore Orioles remain comfortably in front of the American League East -- no thanks to their season-long struggles against the AL Central. The O's dropped to 10-16 against Central teams this season after losing two of three to the Indians Aug. 15-17.
The Orioles arrived in Cleveland as one of the hottest teams in baseball. They had won eight consecutive series dating back to July 21. They hadn't lost even two games in a row since the end of June.
But both streaks were snapped before the O's even played the series finale in Cleveland. The Indians greeted the Birds with back-to-back defeats to begin the three-game set, walking off with a dramatic 2-1, 11-inning win Aug. 15 followed by a 6-0 blowout Aug. 16. The O's rebounded to salvage the finale, 4-1, to avoid what would've been their second sweep of the year.
So it goes with the Orioles against the AL Central. Of the Orioles' eight series against AL Central teams this year, they've won one, lost five and split two.
The Orioles haven't hit or pitched as well against the Central compared to the rest of the league. Entering Aug. 17, the O's were batting .245/.295/.358/.653 during 27 games against the Central, as opposed to a season line of .258/.312/.416/.728 overall. And their ERA against AL Central opponents was 4.32, more than half a run per game worse than their overall 2014 ERA of 3.67.
Let's take a look at what has gone wrong for the Birds during each series against the AL Central in 2014:
April 4-6 vs. Tigers in Detroit: Orioles lose series, 2-1
During their first road series of the year, the O's were crushed 10-4 during the opener and trailed 7-1 in game two before a five-run rally in the ninth inning fell short. Miguel Gonzalez and Bud Norris, each making his first start of the year, were hit hard, and Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter homered during all three games. The O's salvaged the finale, 3-1, as Chris Tillman outdueled Justin Verlander.
April 25-27 vs. Royals in Baltimore: Orioles lose series, 2-1
During the Birds' two losses, the Royals outscored them 14-3. Kansas City starting pitchers dominated the O's offense, with starters Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie and James Shields each delivering a quality start and combining to allow four earned runs in 22 innings. The O's were able to squeak out a 10-inning walkoff win April 26 after reliever Danny Duffy made back-to-back throwing errors on Orioles bunts.
May 2-4 vs. Twins in Minnesota: Orioles lose series, 2-1
Once again, the Orioles' offense was shut down by opposing starters, and in this case they were mediocre ones. Ricky Nolasco, who at the time had a 6.67 ERA (and, as of Aug. 17, has a 5.99 ERA), pitched a complete game during the opener, albeit with the Birds eking out a 3-0 win. Kevin Correia and Phil Hughes also pitched quality starts for the Twins, with each earning a victory.
May 12-14 vs. Tigers in Baltimore: Orioles lose series, 3-0
The Orioles suffered their first (and, thus far, only) series sweep of the season during this three-game set. The first two games of the series ended with identical 4-1 scores, but the second of the two was the more gut-wrenching. Backed by seven shutout innings from starter Ubaldo Jimenez, the O's carried a 1-0 lead into the ninth. But closer Tommy Hunter imploded, coughing up back-to-back home runs, including a go-ahead Miguel Cabrera three-run shot with two outs. Hunter lost his closer's job after that meltdown. During the May 14 finale, Kevin Gausman made his season debut, working on three days' rest after recovering from pneumonia, and gave up five runs in four innings en route to a 7-5 loss.
May 15-18 vs. Royals in Kansas City: Orioles split series, 2-2
The O's seemed to be on their way to their first series win against a Central team, taking the first two games, 2-1 and 4-0, with the latter highlighted by Tillman's complete game shutout. But Duffy -- who had recently joined the Royals' rotation -- carried a perfect game into the seventh inning May 17 on his way to a 1-0 Kansas City win. Then Jimenez was hit hard during the finale, an 8-6 O's loss, which featured two homers by Alex Gordon, and the Birds settled for a split.
May 22-25 vs. Indians in Baltimore: Orioles split series, 2-2
The opener was the Birds' first extra-inning loss of the season, with reliever Troy Patton -- making his final appearance as an Oriole -- giving up a two-run double in the 13th inning. The O's traded Patton two days later. The Birds' other loss, May 24, was a 9-0 lost cause, thanks to another Jimenez blow-up. The Orioles' offense carried their May 23 win, with Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis homering as part of an eight-run, 14-hit attack, while Gonzalez threw a quality start May 25 for the Birds' first Sunday home win of the year.
June 23-25 vs. White Sox in Baltimore: Orioles win series, 2-1
It took until June -- and their seventh look at an AL Central team -- for the Orioles to win a series against the division. Even then, it wasn't easy. During all three games, the Orioles trailed by multiple runs in the eighth inning or later. Twice, though, the Birds were able to take advantage of Chicago's bullpen. Davis smacked a pinch-hit, walk-off three-run homer in the ninth inning of the opener, and during the finale, Cruz walloped a game-tying grand slam in the eighth to erase a 4-0 deficit, with the O's ultimately winning in the 12th.
After more than a two-month hiatus from AL Central opponents, the Orioles continued their losing ways in Cleveland. It's worth noting that several of the Orioles' series against AL Central teams came early during the season, when the Birds were struggling to find their footing. But even now, with the Birds a stronger team than they were during the first half of the season, they're still having their troubles against the Central.
The O's will continue their AL Central tour with three games against the White Sox Aug. 18-20, and they'll finish playing the division by hosting a four-game series against the Twins Aug. 29-Sept. 1. The Birds would need to sweep all seven games against those two teams in order to finish with a winning record against the Central this season.
Thus far in 2014, the Orioles' struggles against the Central haven't been extremely costly, considering that the Birds lead the AL East with a seven-game cushion. But their inability to beat the Central is a head-scratcher all the same.