One step forward and two steps back. So it goes for the struggling 2017 Orioles.
The club had a golden opportunity this weekend to make some noise in the American League Wild Card race, kicking off a homestand against the Los Angeles Angels, who sat three games ahead of them for the second spot.
But just when it seemed the Orioles were building momentum after their dramatic walk-off win in Friday’s opener, they stumbled in the final two games to drop the series. The Orioles not only lost ground to the Angels — who are now four games ahead — but are tied with the Tampa Bay Rays for third in the AL East, just one game ahead of the last-place Toronto Blue Jays. Three other teams stand between the Orioles/Rays and Angels/Minnesota Twins for the second wild card spot.
“Any time you’re in a playoff race with one or two teams you’re playing down the stretch, you want to win those games,” first baseman Chris Davis said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get that one [Sunday] and get the series win. But, you know, we’ve got to find ways to score that extra run, make up that ground late in the game and really kind of close out some of these games if we really want a shot at the postseason and if we want to do well in the postseason.”
In each of their last four series, the Orioles have won the opening game. Yet they haven’t managed to win any of those series, and they’re now four games under .500 for the first time since July 30. If the Orioles are going to make a run, they’re long overdue to begin.
“I think it’s kind of been the story of the whole year for us,” Davis said. “I think there’s just been games that we’ve let slip away, some games we really haven’t been able to close out, whether it’s scoring a run, whether it’s tacking on a few runs to give us some breathing room. I think what’s going to define us this year is whether or not we can make that push and start winning some of those games. Obviously, we’re getting down to some pretty crucial times where we need to start winning these games and start making a move.”
The Orioles, at least in theory, will get a reprieve for the next few days. They host the last-place Oakland Athletics in a three-game set starting Monday. If they can’t win that series, it’s tough to see them hanging in the race much longer.
“The competition is us,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s us playing better regardless of who you’re playing. Our competition is Oakland now, and it’s us. There’s opportunity there for us.”
Britton’s diminishing role
When the Orioles decided not to deal closer Zach Britton at the July 31 trade deadline, players welcomed the non-move. It was a signal that the club intended on keeping its roster together and making a run at a wild card spot. The assumption was that Britton would be a key part of that postseason push.
And he still could be. But, so far, Britton has played very little role for the Orioles since the club elected to keep him.
Britton has had only two appearances that could really be considered game changers. On July 31, hours after the deadline passed, Britton pitched a scoreless ninth inning in a tie game and got the win when the Orioles won on a walk-off. And, on Aug. 5 against the Detroit Tigers, Britton entered the eighth inning with two outs and the possible tying run at second. He escaped the jam and followed with a scoreless ninth for the save.
Beyond that, though, Britton has mostly been used in unimportant situations. Three times, he pitched with the Orioles trailing by three or more runs, just to get some work. On Aug. 10 in Oakland, he came in with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning. He retired the only batter he faced to notch a cheap save, but with a five-run lead and two outs, it wasn’t exactly a high-leverage situation.
Worse than that, Britton has often been left buried in the bullpen in critical situations while other relievers have squandered leads. On Aug. 4, the Orioles held a 2-1 lead over the Tigers in the eighth. Britton, who hadn’t pitched in four days, sat unused while Mychal Givens gave up a grand slam to put the Orioles behind.
One week later, the Orioles again had a one-run, eighth-inning lead in Oakland. Brad Brach surrendered two runs while Britton waited in the bullpen for a save situation that never came.
A similar scenario unfolded Sunday. Brach started the eighth in a tie game and walked two batters. With one out, Showalter turned to Givens, electing to hold back Britton for the ninth. Givens gave up Cameron Maybin’s pinch-hit RBI single that gave the Angels a 5-4 lead and, ultimately, decided the game. Givens was pitching for the second straight day, while Britton hadn’t pitched since Wednesday. By the time Britton worked in the ninth, the Orioles were behind.
“We consider everything,” Showalter said when asked about his reliever usage. “But we had Mychal, who’s very good at that. A lot of people available to do the job real well. We could have brought Brach in in the fifth inning, we could have brought Mychal in in the ninth inning. There’s a lot of options there.”
In fairness, Givens and Brach have both had excellent seasons as setup men. When they’re asked to protect a lead or a tie in the eighth, they’ll come through most of the time. They aren’t bad choices at all.
But the Orioles, in a fight for their lives for a wild card spot, are at a point where every game is critical. It may be time for Showalter to be more aggressive in his use of Britton, the AL’s best relief pitcher in 2016. If that means using Britton an inning earlier than usual to preserve a late-inning lead or tie, so be it. It’s better than keeping him in the bullpen for a save situation that may never come. Every option should be on the table, and Britton shouldn’t be on the sidelines.
Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons was a thorn in the Orioles’ side throughout the series, none more than in the finale, when he homered and made several excellent defensive plays. He started a slick double play on a sharp grounder in the fourth, then made a diving catch to nab a Trey Mancini liner in the eighth.
“If they had a different shortstop there, we would have [won],” Showalter said. “That’s why there’s nobody better than him. He’s special.”
Quietly, Simmons is putting up a MVP-caliber season. The two-time Gold Glover is perhaps the best fielding shortstop in the game right now, and this year he has put up the offense to match, batting .292 with a .796 OPS, 13 homers and 57 RBIs.
On a team that has Mike Trout, Simmons may be the Angels’ most valuable player this year. And that’s saying something.