After the Baltimore Orioles’ 22-10 start, they went into a 20-39 swoon that took away any chance they’d compete for the American League East crown. While they have righted the ship a bit by going 17-13 over their past 30 games, that has just gotten them within ear-shot of seven other wild-card contenders desperately doing their daily hamster imitations.
That’s right, the AL’s second wild-card spot is now between the Orioles, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and, yes, the Toronto Blue Jays. Not only did the Orioles’ uninspiring 4-6 road trip out West cause them to lose ground to the teams in front of them and the couple they had leap-frogged, it allowed both Texas and Toronto to join the incredible race of teams going nowhere. Now do you get the hamster reference?
So, can the Orioles make one big push and grab the second wild-card spot? Absolutely. It really does seem like it could come down to the hottest team during the final 10 days of the regular season.
But, far more interesting is a discussion of just what caused a good Orioles team to go so bad for so long.
There is no question the underlying problem all year has been starting pitching. It’s nearly impossible for a team to contend when four-fifths of its starting rotation pitch into early July with ERA’s over five runs per game.
But, if you go back to a conversation Glenn Clark and I had on Facebook Live previewing the opening of the season, we were both asked to discuss who our most important Oriole was. Glenn chose many third baseman Manny Machado, while I chose starter Kevin Gausman, who I felt had to have a breakout season for the team’s starting pitching to just be OK.
Fast-forward to late June, when the Orioles were in the midst of that 20-39 stretch. Machado limped into July hitting .216 with an on-base percentage of .289. At the same time, Opening Day starter Gausman went into his start on June 27 with a 3-7 record, 6.47 ERA and hard-to-believe WHIP of 1.88 (or nearly two batters per inning on base) over his first 16 starts.
Beginning July 1, Machado has raised his batting average 44 points, by going 58-for-174, a much-more Machado-like clip of .333 . In those 42 games, despite a 22 game homerless streak, Machado has homered eight times (including two grand slams on the recently concluded West Coast swing). Machado has driven in 36 runs over that stretch.
As for Gausman, beginning with his June 27 start, he has started 10 times, going 6-1. Over the 59.1 innings pitched, Gasman has dropped his ERA to 5.03 and WHIP to 1.60. During the stretch, he has pitched to a 3.19 ERA with a WHIP of 1.21.
Looking ahead to 2018, with a few small but significant tweaks, and if Machado and Gausman -- the team’s best offensive player and best starting pitcher -- can produce like they are capable, the Orioles seem like a solid candidate for a bounce-back season rather than one that includes plans for a massive rebuild.
Two top players make that much of a difference.