Orioles say pitching woes 'fixable,' but the clock is ticking

CHICAGO -- The Baltimore Orioles didn’t figure to contend before the season. That’s what the analytical systems all said, including mine. Of course, under Buck Showalter, the Orioles have made a habit of making the projection systems look silly, and the Orioles thought they’d contend, as did their fans, because that’s how it has been the past few years.

Mostly, the disconnect between Baltimore’s projections and its actual record has been due to off-the-charts work from one of the game’s best bullpens and Showalter’s ability to extract that quality for all it's worth. The way things have been going lately for the Baltimore rotation, the bullpen performance hasn’t really mattered. Not that Showalter looks at it that way.

“It’s all fixable,” Showalter said. “We’ve shown that sometimes [our pitchers] are our strengths for us. I’m not one of those guys who hangs it all on one phase of the game. This is a game where, one is lacking, the others need to pick it up. We’ve done well.

"We’ve been known for [our pitching], but we’re not doing it right now.”

About a month ago, Baltimore appeared to be on target for another beat-the-forecast season. The Orioles’ 22-10 mark through May 9 was the best in the majors. Even with standout closer Zach Britton hitting the disabled list with a forearm issue, the bullpen had remained mostly airtight, recording 15 saves in 20 chances and posting a 3.54 reliever ERA that ranked ninth in baseball. It looked as though Showalter and his charges were headed for another solid season that, for whatever reason, the math dudes just could not foresee.

That turned out to be the high-water mark for the Orioles in 2017, so far anyway, and it has been a steep decline since. Baltimore has dropped 23 of 33, including a 5-2 loss in the series finale at the Chicago White Sox on Thursday afternoon. During that span, Baltimore ranks last in the majors in ERA (5.94). After Chris Tillman was charged with five runs over 5⅓ innings Thursday, the Orioles have posted just one quality start in Baltimore’s past 11 games.

“It’s not fun, but at the same time, guys are playing hard,” Tillman said. “They’re not giving in or making lazy mistakes. We just have to play a better brand of baseball.

"More importantly, we’ve got to pitch better. When you’re pitching well, you tend to win more ballgames.”

The Orioles' bullpen hasn’t been sharp during this stretch by any means (4.68 ERA), but it has hardly mattered. Baltimore has had just six save chances since May 10, converting three of them. You can’t save the lead you don’t have.

For Tillman, this season has been an ongoing nightmare. After missing the first month with a shoulder injury, the right-hander has gone 1-5 with an 8.07 ERA over eight starts. And he won the first of those, tossing five scoreless innings in his 2017 debut against those same White Sox. Since then, Tillman has lost five consecutive decisions and allowed 32 earned runs over 30⅔ innings. His outing Thursday, at least in terms of process, was actually an improvement.

“Chris has a good track record,” Showalter said. “He pitched better. Hopefully today’s the start of that. We’re going to need it. I think he only walked one batter, which tells you how many foul balls [they hit]. Coming through the fourth inning they were in their third time through the order. They made him earn everything, and he did. He gave us a chance, but we’re just not scoring any runs.”

It was a struggle from the outset for Tillman, who gamely worked out of jams in the second, third and fourth innings, holding Chicago to Matt Davidson's solo homer in the fourth. The White Sox finally got the big hit against him in the sixth on Melky Cabrera's two-run single to center.

“I think it was much better, to tell you the truth,” Tillman said. “Pitch to Cabrera could have been better, but for the most part, it was a step in the right direction. I never really felt like I was in a huge jam. I felt like from the get-go I was able to make pitches. Guys got on bases early, but I knew most of those situations were just one pitch away. You’ve got to focus on making that pitch.”

With two runners still on base and one out, Showalter went to Jimmy Yacabonis, who promptly walked three batters and gave up a warning-track sac fly to Leury Garcia. After Yacabonis threw ball one to Davidson, Showalter sprung from the dugout and signaled for Miguel Castro before he had even cleared the warning track.

It’s not all on Tillman. Since that May high-water mark, Baltimore’s rotation ERA is 6.85, another worst-in-the-game measure. The starters rank 28th in strikeouts per nine innings, 30th in walk rate and 28th in homers per nine innings. In other words, all the prime areas of pitcher responsibility have been a disaster for Showalter going on five weeks now. That has been true not just of Tillman but also fellow rotation anchor Kevin Gausman, who is slated to start Friday when the Orioles return home to begin a series against St. Louis.

“It’s been a challenge for all of our pitchers, not just Kevin,” Showalter said. "They have a track record of being better than they have so far for a majority of their starts. I’m looking forward to an outing like Chris had today that kind of helps him get on his way.”

And yet, despite the two-losses-every-three games pace of the past few weeks, the Orioles haven’t yet sunk. Despite the loss Thursday, the Orioles remain just one game under .500 and right in the mix of the early American League wild-card chase, a tepid affair that has the entire league wondering if a hot week can put their team in the catbird seat.

Right now, the Orioles can’t worry about any of that. Sure, they hope Britton will return, and Manny Machado presumably won’t hit .214 for the rest of the season. But while the Orioles navigated around a problematic rotation a season ago, the degree of the current struggles is just too much. Something has to give.

“It’s a huge momentum game, and if we can get on a roll, that’s a fun thing to be a part of,” Tillman said. “We’ve lost before. A loss is a loss regardless of how you look at it. We’ve got a good team, and we know what we’re capable of doing. Just keep moving forward and play better baseball.”

The Orioles are still afloat, somehow. But if they are going to keep breathing, their rotation must supply the life jacket. Because the longer the season goes, the deeper the waters are going to get.