Almost every series or stretch of games the O’s have played since the third week of April have been marketed as the games that will define what kind of team the 2012 Orioles are. To their credit, the Orioles got the better of most, if not all, of these “season defining” challenges. During the 36-game stretch that started with the third series of the season in Toronto on April 13th and cumulated with the end of the series in Washington on May 20th, the Orioles went 24-12. In winning at a .666 pace, the O’s won nine series, lost only two, and split one two-game series with the Yankees. The team was 11-3 against AL East opponents during the run. The Orioles did everything that was “asked” of them during this period. They pitched well. They got big hits. They beat the AL East. They took care of business against struggling teams. They won series. With the exception of a slight stumble against the Texas Rangers (and to be fair, a lot of teams have stumbled against the Rangers thus far), the Orioles played extremely well during this time frame and that level of play was reflected in their record and place atop the AL East standings. As encouraging as the Orioles’ play was, it was also abundantly obvious that the level of play was unsustainable. Not necessarily because the Orioles were playing way over their heads, but rather because few teams can sustain that level of play over the course of a 162-game season. Only the best teams in baseball win 104 games, the pace the Orioles were on as of May 20th, and even the most optimistic Orioles’ fans didn’t believe that 104 wins was a realistic expectation for this team. It was so clear that the O’s were going to face rough patches and were not going to sustain their current level of play, that articles like these by Fangraphs and Rob Neyer, which “predicted” that the Orioles’ current success was ultimately unsustainable, were met with a collective “Duh!”. It is inevitable that the Orioles will hit one, and most likely several, major rough patches before the season concludes in October. It was just a matter of when they would occur and how bad they would be.
Apparently, the answers to those questions are “now” and “to be determined”, respectively. The team has cooled off quote a bit since May 20th. After leaving Washington with their ninth series win out of their last twelve tries, the O’s have dropped two straight series at home – first to the Red Sox and then to the Kansas City Royals. Last night, the Orioles were defeated by the Blue Jays in Toronto to make it 5 loses in their last 7 games and 6 in their last eight if we are to count the final game in the Washington series. The eventuality was all knew was coming is now a reality. The question is, is this just a bump in the road or a harbinger of things to come?
That question is really the most important one of the Orioles’ young season and a question that in all likelihood will be asked several more times before the 2012 season is in the books. While we were busy counting game and series wins, we were ignoring that the Orioles were simply delaying the inevitable. The inevitable being the rough patches and losing streaks that all teams go through. The team’s ability to minimize the tough stretches and bounce back from them will ultimately define the success of their season. If the Orioles are able to show that their current woes are nothing more than a bump in the road before getting back to their winning ways, then that will go a long way in proving that this 2012 Orioles team is for real. All teams – even the best – have losing streaks. It’s the ability to minimize the damage and bounce back from defeats that separates those elite teams from the rest of the pack.
The Orioles are facing their first real bump in the road of the 2012 season. If they are able to keep it just a bump in the road and avoid having the wheels come off, that will be a positive sign that the Orioles can stick around and aren’t just off to a lucky, unsustainable start. Sometimes it’s how a team loses that really defines them. Thus far, there have been positive signs in that regard. Again, putting aside the Texas series, the Orioles have lost close – even winnable – games. Even when they have been losing, they have been giving themselves chances to win more often than not. That’s a sign of a good team. Another sign is being able to avoid long slumps and losing streaks. We will find out soon enough how well this Orioles’ team is able to stop the bleeding and get back to winning games.