O's falter in first big WC test vs. Guardians

August 31st, 2022

CLEVELAND -- As the Orioles waltzed out of Houston on Sunday evening, they did so with their heads held high despite a sweep falling by the wayside. They had already taken the set against the paragon of the American League, another series in which they felt they showcased to the baseball landscape that they were for real, that they are “starting to fire on all cylinders.”

One about-face night in Cleveland -- a lifeless 5-1 loss to the Guardians on Tuesday evening at Progressive Field -- will likely not do much to erode those good feelings. But Cleveland did expose a few items that the Orioles will need to address down the stretch should they truly envision themselves entrants into the postseason.

Their offense -- which scored just six runs against the Astros despite taking the series -- was held to one hit against Cleveland starter Cal Quantrill and three vaunted relievers, albeit in a game their expected batting average nearly equaled that of the Guardians. Their rotation -- which entered the contest riding five straight quality starts and a 1.58 ERA across seven games -- saw pitch 3 2/3 perfect innings and then fall apart in the fourth and fifth innings, ultimately tagged for all five runs.

“We got one hit,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Tough to win on nights like that.”

The long-term view still remains peachy. The Orioles have already clinched their third consecutive winning month after entering the season without one since August 2017. They’ll have a soft weekend back home hosting the AL-worst A’s. And in the most macro of senses, they’ve made themselves a competitive team a year ahead of schedule; they will very likely add top prospects Gunnar Henderson and DL Hall to the fold by the end of the week as well, with both joining the Orioles in Cleveland, multiple sources told MLB.com.

But that doesn’t do much to mollify the moment. Tuesday’s loss pushed Baltimore to three games back of Toronto for the final Wild Card spot, putting the club in a tie with Minnesota on the outside looking in.

There is even more weight on this set in Cleveland because of who the Orioles’ four biggest postseason foes are squaring off against concurrently. Toronto faces a Cubs team nearly 20 games under .500, Seattle is playing a last-place Tigers squad, and both Minnesota and Tampa Bay square off against far inferior Red Sox and Marlins teams, respectively. All won on Tuesday.

A stumble in Ohio could prove costly for the Orioles, who are trying to keep pace. They will face frontline starters Triston McKenzie and Shane Bieber, the AL Cy Young and Triple Crown winner two years ago, in the second and third games of the series.

The Orioles are dealing with an offensive malaise in the meantime; their 4.38 runs per game in August is their lowest average since May -- a number that drops to 3.96 when you remove their only game scoring more than 10 runs, which came in a 15-10 slugfest against the Red Sox on Aug. 12.

Some of those concerns are team-wide; Baltimore’s 539 runs on the year ranks 20th in the Majors, behind postseason afterthoughts in Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco and Boston, among others. And various other concerns are microcosmic; despite scoring Baltimore’s only run with a sac fly in the second and later adding a walk, owns an OPS of only .591 since the start of July and has struck out 51 times.

Mountcastle was dropped to seventh in the order for the first time this season on Tuesday as a physical and mental reset, Hyde said pregame.

“It's everything,” Mountcastle said of his struggles. “It’s not swinging at good pitches, but lately I feel like I've had some bad at-bats here and there. But I feel like for the most part I've been having some pretty good at-bats, either not hitting it hard, or when I do it just seems like it's always finding somebody. It's unfortunate, but I'm going to try to keep growing and working hard at it.”

But this all might actually be cause for optimism. The Orioles have continued to rattle off wins despite not performing anywhere near where they believe their apex is. They have now a month to try and get hot and will themselves into a surprise postseason bid.

They’ve set aside the expectations laid out for them thus far. Now they merely face their biggest challenge yet in doing so.