Baltimore's beer currently sits at 83.4 degrees Fahrenheit and rising, perfect for keeping freshwater African Cichlids with a serious drinking problem, but far from what Chuck Thompson would consider cold. At press time, the Orioles had lost five in a row after being swept at home in back-to-back series by the San Diego and Tampa. The losses knocked the once-blazing Birds back to a third-place tie with the fast-rising Rays; and with C.C. Sabathia and the first-place Yankees coming into town for a three-game set, it doesn't look to get much easier. Frankly, it looks like the wheels have come off the Orioles Express.
The already-thin starting rotation took a major hit with their most consistent starter, Wei Yin Chen, on the 15-day disabled list with a strained oblique, and they haven't been able to win a game since. Chris Tillman has been solid, if unlucky, but the rest of the rotation has been woeful, and there's little help on the farm. Veteran right-hander Jair Jurrjens came up on Saturday and looks to be a decent option at the back of the rotation, but there's no one else waiting in the wings. Super-stud prospect Dylan Bundy received a platelet-rich plasma injection which should take care of the tightness in his elbow and, if judging solely by the name of the procedure, should allow him to hurl a baseball through a T-1000 and end any pesky robot uprisings. In the meantime, he's shut down for six weeks and still a ways from the bigs. Meanwhile, the parent club is taking it slow with fellow first-round pick Kevin Gausman, so, barring a radical turn of events, don't expect to see him before the September call-ups. Zach Britton is an option, but he's got a 4.08 ERA playing half his games in pitcher-friendly Harbor Park, and we've been down that road before. There's a reason Jurrjens got that call.
And then there's the pen. Nothing has fueled the Orioles rise like its bear trap of a bullpen: They don't let any leads get away. Or at least they didn't. The O's had won an astounding 109 straight games after leading in the seventh before losing to the Rays on Saturday, and their ERA is a staggering 7.71 over the five-game skid. Closer Jim Johnson had converted 35 consecutive save opportunities (to put this feat in perspective, Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time, and his record is 36) before blowing two in a row. No one expects the bullpen's struggles to continue, and Johnson is too good to let this be more than a bump in the road, but the timing sucks. After a successful West Coast road swing, coming back to cozy Camden Yards was supposed to be a welcome respite.
Another worrisome development is the Orioles' inability to fill Brian Roberts' vacant spot at second base. Ryan Flaherty was sent down due to his anemic bat. The slick-fielding second sacker's .133 batting average wasn't just below the dreaded Mendoza line: He wasn't even hitting Lindsay Lohan's weight. The club brought up Yamaico Navarro, who should have no problem out-hitting Flaherty, but his glove looks to be lined with lead. (Did you catch his spectacularly bad one-hand toss on Sunday? Neither did J.J. Hardy, as it went sailing over his head. As far as I know, it's still bouncing around in shallow center.) With the staff struggling, I'm not sure his bat is worth the glove. The Birds' defense has bordered on spectacular this season. It's been a big part of their success, and we saw the domino effect one player can have on a teams D with the Manny Machado call-up last year. I don't think anyone wants to see that one in reverse.
Every team has losing streaks, but this skid has been a stunner. Winning a game after trailing by two in the ninth and facing maybe the best closer in the game is the kind of moment that can launch a team on a playoff run. Being on the losing end of that scenario, like the O's were, can rip a squad's heart out, and these Birds are still babies. A team like the Yankees expects to win, they've been doing it for what seems like millennia. The Orioles have been a winning club for a little over a year. They haven't been tested, and we don't yet know if they've got the institutional chutzpah to pull through this.
The Orioles are a flawed team-they need pitching, a second baseman, and a DH-but they've also proven they are a good one. They've been slugging it out at the top of the toughest division in baseball while playing an early schedule tougher than a two-dollar steak. Adam Jones and Johnson have become budding leaders reminiscent of some of their pinstriped progenitors, and their skipper is the best in the biz. No baseball season is easy, it's a 162-game slog, and now we get to see what these Birds are really about. The wheels may have come off the express, but do they fold, or will they Buck Up and Ride the local?
neither Jim Meyer nor the editors of City Paper recommend keeping African Cichlids or any other type of fish in warm beer, but to find out the other stupid stuff Jim does recommend, follow him on twitter @jimmy2bad or email firstname.lastname@example.org.