BALTIMORE -- If it seemed too good to be true, that's because it was.
In the bottom of the eighth inning Wednesday, the Baltimore Orioles overcame a one-run deficit against a Seattle Mariners team that has spent the first half of the season elevating the one-run win to an art form. And they did it by way of a clutch, three-run homer from Chris Davis, the embattled slugger who's having one of the worst offensive seasons in ... well ... ever. What's more, Davis' monster blast -- which gave Baltimore a 7-5 lead and was the first Birds bomb to land on Eutaw Street in nearly two years -- set the stage for Zach Britton to boost his trade value by proving that he's still got what it takes to be a reliable closer.
Then the stage collapsed.
Britton, trying to pick up his second save since returning from offseason surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon, promptly allowed a single to Mitch Haniger to lead off the top of the ninth. He then fell behind cleanup hitter Kyle Seager two balls and no strikes before unleashing a 94 mph sinker that forgot to sink. Seager turned on it and deposited it over the right-field wall.
Tie game, just like that.
For clerical purposes, the Mariners went on to win 8-7 in 11 innings, because that's what they do. They win one-run games. In fact, they've had more one-run victories in their first 81 games than any team in major league history. With a 25-11 record in nail-biters, they're on pace for 50 one-run wins, which would shatter the record of 42, held by the 1978 Giants. It's been 40 years since then, which is about how long the 2018 season must already feel for Orioles fans.
Eighty games in, the O's have won just 23 games. They're on pace to finish with 47 wins, which is three fewer than the Mariners already have, and seven fewer than division-leading Boston has. It's a colossal comedown for a team that has spent the past six years enjoying its first taste of 21st century relevance. In a disaster of a baseball season like the one the 2018 Orioles are authoring, there are only two things worth paying attention to, only two things that could possibly afford fans even the slightest sliver of hope:
1. Watching youngsters who get called up from the minor leagues offer a glimpse into what the future might hold.
2. Rooting for trade targets to boost their value in hopes that they'll get dealt for maximum value, fetching a package of prospects to speed along the rebuilding process.
Seeing as how it's still June, it's a little early for reason No. 1 to really take effect. After all, clubs like the Orioles need to spend most if not all of July showcasing their tradable pieces for prospective buyers. That leaves reason No. 2 -- trade value -- as the one and only reason for O's fans to care right now. If recent events are any indication, that second part isn't going so well.
Prior to Wednesday's heartbreaker against Seattle, the Birds placed Darren O'Day -- one of several attractive assets in a bullpen that's been one of the game's best units over the past few years -- on the 10-day disabled list with a hamstring injury. O'Day got hurt on Tuesday, the same day that shortstop Manny Machado got booed by the hometown crowd for loafing it out of the box on a double-play ground ball. Given Machado's status as the single biggest trade chip of the summer, not to mention his pre-existing reputation for running the not-so-occasional soft 90, the gaffe isn't likely to affect his market standing. Still, it was a bad look. But in terms of trade value, it wasn't nearly as bad as the look that Britton's been giving lately.
In eight appearances since rejoining the Orioles, the 30-year-old lefty has been a fraction of the hurler who finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2016, when he went a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities. In his first outing, on June 12, he issued three walks for the first time in more than 200 outings since becoming a reliever in 2014. Last week against the Braves, he blew a four-run ninth-inning lead, retiring just one of the six batters he faced. And now, the stage collapse against Seattle. Says one scout who watched Britton on Wednesday: "He's just not himself." Truth is, Britton hasn't been himself for a while.
Although the Orioles took a PR beating for not dealing Britton at last year's trade deadline, there are those who feel Baltimore should have sold even sooner. Immediately after his magical 2016 season, Britton's value was never going to be higher. And it's not like the O's didn't have other options to fill his shoes -- dependable back-end arms such as O'Day, Brad Brach and Mychal Givens. Instead, they stood pat.
They stood pat and watched as Britton proceeded to battle a forearm injury in 2017 and put up numbers that, while decent, weren't on par with those to which O's fans had grown accustomed. They stood pat last summer, when the entire free world thought Britton was going to the Astros until the deal inexplicably fizzled at the buzzer, presumably because the Orioles didn't think they were getting fair market value.
They stood pat at the 2017 winter meetings, and then a week afterward had to swallow the news that their closer had torn an Achilles. Six months later, with Britton's contract ready to expire at the end of a lost season for a franchise whose current window has slammed shut, it's safe to assume ownership is no longer standing pat. The question is, with Britton struggling to regain his form, what exactly will they get in return?
A week ago, the Royals dealt Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals. They got three prospects in return, two of whom were at the fringe of Washington's top-10 list. Not exactly an Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman type of haul. And that was for Herrera, a guy who had a stranglehold on KC's closer gig. A guy that hasn't been dealing with health issues. A guy who boasted an ERA just north of 1.00 at the time of his trade. Although Herrera has never been as good as Britton was from 2014 to 2016 -- few relievers ever have -- timing is everything. And right now, when it comes to dealing one of their most precious trade chips, time doesn't appear to be on the Orioles' side.
"I expected that it would take me some time to come back after surgery, not having a spring, but obviously I want it to come now," Britton said. Despite his 7.04 ERA, there have been positives. Six of his eight outings have been scoreless. He successfully converted his first save opportunity, and did so while pitching in the second of back-to-back games. But along with the pluses, there are minuses. His average fastball velocity is down a couple of ticks and his command has been shaky. In 7 2/3 innings this season, he's already allowed as many home runs (one) as he did in the entire 2016 season. And it bugs the bejesus out of him.
"It's been a struggle," Britton said following the loss to Seattle, his voice more hoarse than usual. "Tonight's about as frustrated as I've been in a long time. Just try to be better if I get in the game the next day or tomorrow. That's kind of my mindset right now."
Britton is confident that what he's going through has nothing to do with his forearm issues and the time he missed last season, and everything to do with his Achilles. With not having a proper spring training. With trying to play catch-up.
"It's not being able to do the things I normally do in the offseason, from working out to throwing, because I had surgery," he said. "It's a lot of rest, a lot of trying to re-remember being out on the mound and how I was successful in the delivery. It's just finding a way now, where I'm at physically, to get the job done.
"Maybe it's not the way I was throwing a year ago, two years ago. I've got to find another way to make it happen. That's what I've got to do. You can't be stubborn. You've got to branch out and figure out, OK, how am I going to get back to myself now? And you've got be a little bit open-minded about certain things that I'm going to do and try, and that's all I can do to get back to where I want to be."
In the meantime, with the trade deadline approaching, the Orioles would be well-served to be a little open-minded too. Certainly more open-minded than they were a year ago.