The Orioles lost again to the Twins yesterday, dropping Baltimore to one game above .500 and 6.5 games out of first place in the American League East. Right now, they're only two games back of the second wild card spot (Rangers), but two teams (Angels and Twins) are only 1.5 games out. The Rays are 2.5 games out. So the O's have their work cut out for them -- especially with a remaining schedule that looks like this:
4 at Kansas City Royals
3 at Texas Rangers
3 vs. Tampa Bay Rays
3 at Toronto Blue Jays
3 at New York Yankees
3 vs. Kansas City Royals
3 vs. Boston Red Sox
4 at Tampa Bay Rays
3 at Washington Nationals
3 at Boston Red Sox
4 vs. Toronto Blue Jays
3 at New York Yankees
That's really difficult! The only silver lining is that the Orioles are chasing many of those teams, so if they get hot, they can make up ground in a hurry.
Well, maybe there's another advantage: The Orioles are done playing the Twins. Minnesota won all seven of its games against the Orioles this season, and the recent four-game series sweep in Camden Yards was probably the O's most frustrating series since they lost all four games to the Royals in the American League Championship Series. In that infuriating series, the O's lost those games by a total of six runs.
In the Twins' series, the Orioles were outscored by 16 runs, but the majority of those came in the first-game blowout loss (15-2). Blowouts happen; the O's moved on. But they simply could not break through. That aggravating, unrelenting feeling -- winning being so close, yet so far away -- resurfaced, and it was just as awful as last October. Sure, the stakes weren't nearly as high, but losing such winnable games, particularly when a team needs them most, is agonizing.
Really, the O's have no one but themselves to blame. In the last three games, the Twins demonstrated a similar characteristic that worked so well for the Royals last postseason. They worked counts and fouled off pitches. They got on base, with a seemingly endless assault of bloops, broken-bat singles, and infield hits. They used their speed and forced the O's into errors. And they took advantage of every mistake. Maybe no example is better than in yesterday's 12-inning loss, when the Twins took advantage of two errors on relatively routine grounders to shortstop (by Manny Machado, filling in for an injured J.J. Hardy) and third base (by Jimmy Paredes) to score the go-ahead and eventual winning run. Eduardo Escobar not only reached with one out on Machado's error, but he took the extra base and ended up on second by not hesitating.
On the other hand, the Orioles didn't hit well and squandered opportunities. They didn't tack on insurance runs. In consecutive games, Darren O'Day blew a 3-1 lead; Brad Brach allowed an inherited, go-ahead runner to score (after intentionally walking Escobar for some ridiculous reason); and Zach Britton blew a save with two outs. By making a couple of extra plays, the Orioles could have taken three of four. But they didn't.
If you want to count the Orioles out, you'd be justified in doing so. They frequently look like a team that's a player or two short: one that wins a few games, then loses a few; one that gets effective starting pitching for a stretch but doesn't hit well enough, and then will struggle to get pitchers past the fifth inning but will score a bunch of runs. Inconsistency is the mark of a decent but not great team.
But the Orioles also seem to thrive at times like these. They were mocked after Hisashi Iwakuma's no-hitter. They won their next four games against the A's. Unfortunately, they also don't have a whole lot of games remaining against teams like the A's.
If the road weren't rough enough, the Orioles also have to play for an extended stretch without Hardy, who's headed to the disabled list after injuring his groin. Hardy hasn't looked right for most of the season, and he's also been bothered by an assortment of injuries (shoulder, oblique, etc.). His defense will be missed, but his offense (52 wRC+, worst among 27 shortstops with more than 300 plate appearances) won't. Jonathan Schoop was ridiculed for his 65 wRC+ last season. Hardy's 2015 has been disastrous and is worth being talked about alongside the failure of so many of the team's corner outfielders. If you want to deride Dan Duquette for going with a slew of platoon outfielders, that's fine. He has clearly made mistakes. But you can't blame him for everything, and Hardy's underperformance has been critical.
It's fitting that the Orioles are headed to Kansas City after being swept in close, maddening fashion. They have 39 games left to play, and things could go south in a hurry if they let it happen. So they might as well face what agitates them most and go right after the team that ended their 2014 hopes.