By most calculations, the Orioles had played their way out of playoff contention long before the current homestand opened a stretch that called for 19 of 22 home games. But just in case there was any lingering doubt, the weekend series against the Angels Aug. 18-20 pretty much settled the issue.
This homestand was supposed to be the chance for a re-start, heading back into divisional play with a string of series against teams ahead of them in the Wild Card playoff "race," which is becoming more like a survival test than a postseason run. It started with a fun weekend celebration of the 25th anniversary of Oriole Park at Camden Yards Aug. 18, set off by a wild, walk-off grand-slam home run by Manny Machado.
That blast gave the Orioles a win in the first game of the series for the fourth straight time. That they weren't able to win any of those series tells you all you really need to know. The O's have struggled to finish games all year -- and now, at crunch time, they have been unable to finish series -- four straight now, three against teams ahead of them in the standings.
As that Angels' series evolved, or unraveled, manager Buck Showalter announced a decision about the starting rotation that spoke volumes about the team's approach at this crucial time of the year. It started with the idea that right-hander Dylan Bundy would get an extra day between starts, something the club has done as often as possible throughout the year to control his number of innings.
An extra day for Bundy then became an extra day for a few, then an extra day for everybody and suddenly a team that has struggled throughout the year(s) trying to find four reliable starters was now juggling six -- a recipe for disaster. Bundy, who could've pitched against the Angels with either five, six or seven days of rest and still been available on regular or extended rest for the upcoming series against the Red Sox Aug. 25-27, was pushed back to the final game of a three-game set against the Oakland A's -- the weakest team the Orioles will play the rest of the year -- and therefore will not be available in Boston.
Plain and simple, Bundy is the Orioles' best starting pitcher, a fact that isn't even open for debate. Yet, as the club tries to steer him through the post-Tommy John surgery routine, he is the elephant in the room when it comes to setting up a rotation. Like most MLB teams, the O's seem wedded to the "plus-30" rule when it comes to innings pitched. And under that formula, his 140.1 innings are over the limit compared to the 109.2 he logged last year.
Lost in this shuffle is the fact that in 2012, one year after he was drafted and when he was ranked the second best minor league prospect, Bundy threw 105.1 innings. He made 23 starts that year, an average of fewer than five per, so he was hardly abused.
Still, it wasn't good enough to keep him off the operating table, and 2012 was the year of Tommy John surgery, while 2013, 2014 and 2015, for the most part, were lost years -- except that Bundy was originally signed to a major league contract and his service time clock was clicking with every rehab assignment.
Bundy isn't the same pitcher who routinely hit the upper 90s with his fastball when he was drafted, and he may never be. But, for all his problems, he's the best the O's have to offer right now. It's gone almost unnoticed given the club's struggles lately, but the Orioles have won Bundy's last five starts and are 14-9 in those games thus far.
He's the guy Showalter needs out there as often as possible. But guidelines being guidelines, he is without many options -- no doubt the biggest reason the Orioles made the trade to bring in right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, a veteran with a decent track record who can at least present a viable option.
There is another, admittedly scarier, explanation of the Orioles' dilemma with Bundy. Usually when a No. 1 starter misses a turn this time of year it means there's a health issue. And let's face it, 10 days of rest between starts means Bundy missed a turn. Was it a pre-emptive move to avoid a health issue or was it just a precautionary move?
You can only hope it's because of the "30-plus" guideline. Whether it is or not we'll find out in a hurry. At the most, Bundy will get another six starts, which would put him in the vicinity of 170 innings for the year -- on pace for 200 next year, but well above the projected number for this year. And remember, the Orioles have said all along they would monitor Bundy with the idea of playing baseball in the fall.
A more likely scenario, barring an improbable comeback, is that Bundy gets shut down before the season is finished as the O's look forward to 2018, which looms as a pivotal year for the organization. While everyone frets over potential free agents who could leave, the Orioles will be looking for a way to maximize the talent of their No. 1 starter before he reaches that point in his career.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com