Maybe this is one of those gift horse situations that you shouldn't analyze too closely, but it's hard not to notice that the Orioles are in one of the most productive offensive slumps ever.
Their 1-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Sunday is just their latest high-wire act in the grueling 2 1/2-week stretch against the top teams in the American League West that ended with yet another important series victory against another tough playoff contender.
The lovely totals, as broadcaster Joe Angel likes to call them, clearly don't tell the whole story, but no one is going to turn a nose up at 10 wins in 16 games at a time when the Orioles needed to solidify their hold on first place in the AL East. Still, the fact that they did it while averaging just 3.3 runs per game and prevailing by only one run in each of their last six victories makes one troublesome question hard to ignore.
How long can they keep this up?
Right-hander Chris Tillman pitched seven shutout innings Sunday, and the bullpen was airtight as usual with a short lead in the late innings, which has become a fairly common storyline over the past month or so. The pitching has been terrific and the offense has been, well, less than playoff-caliber as the postseason is becoming faintly visible on the horizon.
"I'll take it," Tillman said. "We're winning. We're playing good baseball. They're going to come around. They kind of carried us for the first time of the season when we were struggling, so it's kind of evening out."
In other words, Team Counterintuitive is at it again.
The Orioles came out of the All-Star break leading the division by four games and facing a 10-game road trip against the Oakland Athletics, the Los Angeles Angels and the Mariners, who just happened to own three of the top five records in the AL at the time. Throw in the just-completed six-game homestand against the Angels and the Mariners and you can't help but be impressed that the Orioles all but maintained the status quo in the division.
So now, all they have to do is travel down to Washington for a quick interleague makeup game against the first-place Nationals and travel to Canada for a road showdown with their most dangerous divisional rival, the Toronto Blue Jays, before coming home to face the recently upgraded St. Louis Cardinals and the stubbornly resilient New York Yankees.
The schedule never seems to soften up, but it would be a lot easier if the Orioles hitters showed up at the party a little more often. Though manager Buck Showalter concedes that point and wonders along with everyone else when his once-explosive offense will re-assert itself, he's not ready to view this as a season-threatening crisis.
"Obviously I'm seeing the same thing you are," he said. "We went through periods earlier in the season where the pitching was struggling and we had some extra offense going that covered some things and allowed us to stay engaged at the top of the division. Now, we seem to be going through a period where we're pitching well and not doing things to make it a little easier on the pitching staff. So, if we had never had the other, I'd be a lot more concerned about it."
He recognizes, however, that the the season is now in its final third and the margin for error narrows every day. The Orioles have waited a long time for Chris Davis to fight his way out of a frustrating offensive funk and now they need to get Nelson Cruz back on track. If those two things happen, all probably will be well, but that's a rather big "if" at this stage of the game.
"You just hope and trust the track record that this too shall pass, but understand that sometimes it doesn't," Showalter said. "It's not just, 'Oh well, que sera.' It's just something we've got to go through. When you're in the 50-game-march area. You'd like to have it happen sooner rather than later."
Give the hitters some credit for picking their spots. It's not like there haven't been some clutch late-inning hits over the past few weeks — including several decisive swings by Davis — but the Orioles aren't going to win too many games like Sunday, when Nick Markakis homered to lead off the bottom of the first inning and that run held up for eight more innings.
"It would be easy to say 'yeah' and that's probably reality in the way it's normally thought of," Showalter said, "but I come here and we come here and we go in and say, 'All right, we've got to score one more run than them today.' It would be nice to score two more than them, or three more or four more, but [it's good] to be able to win games during a period where we aren't doing as much offensively as we're capable of."
Indeed it is, but you can only walk a tightrope for so long before the wind picks up.