This is not the start anyone envisioned after Baltimore jumped out to a 6-1 record and seemed poised to live up to the plucky title that national pundits and those around baseball had been predicting. The Orioles entered the All-Star break in the American League East cellar, with several key injuries and underperformance by their young pitchers and veterans alike putting them in an all-too-familiar position.
"We are struggling," third baseman Mark Reynolds said after a loss in Texas as part of a brutal three-city road trip to close the first half.
"We are not getting hits with runners in scoring position, we are not getting our timely pitching and it's adding up to a lot of losses right now," Reynolds continued. "So it's very frustrating. But at the same time, we have a lot of professionals in there that are going to go out there and keep swinging it every night and try to win as many games as we can."
To have any hope for a second-half surge, the Orioles will have to get healthy, or more specifically, get both Brian's -- in Roberts and Matusz -- right. The starting second baseman and leadoff hitter, Roberts' absence in the Orioles' lineup is felt on a daily occasion. While shortstop J.J. Hardy has been raking from the top spot, Roberts' substitutes -- in Blake Davis and Robert Andino -- can't match his productivity, weakening the overall lineup, and to some degree, resulting in the team's struggles with runners in scoring position.
Matusz, who missed two months of the season with a left intercostal muscle strain, showcased an alarming dip in velocity and ineffectiveness upon his return and was sent to Triple-A at the end of June. Projected to be the team's No. 2 starter, the 24-year-old lefty was thought to be a cornerstone of the organization. Having Matusz return to form after the break would help stabilize a depleted starting rotation that will determine much of the Orioles' future success.
"They don't all come at the same time," manager Buck Showalter said of the team's young pitchers.
The young arms have all taken their lumps this season, whether it be health concerns over Jake Arrieta's elbow, a move to the bullpen for Brad Bergesen or the continued struggles of 23-year-old Chris Tillman, who is with Matusz in Triple-A.
"You don't throw a blanket over it. Some guys are later, [they] come later," Showalter added. "And some guys have to have a little setback to see if they are going to bite back or if they are just going to pull in the dirt around you. ... Like I told them, they are presented an opportunity. If they don't take it and run with it, we will keep on sifting."
AT THE BREAK
- MVP: J.J. Hardy -- Injury aside, he has been the most consistent player on both sides of the field.
- Cy Young: Jim Johnson -- Has established himself as one of the league's best setup men.
- Rookie: Zach Britton -- Rough stretch resulted in him going to the Minors, but the 23-year-old lefty still has plenty of upside.
- Top reliever: Jim Johnson -- There's been no one better in the later innings.
Players to watch in the second half
- Mark Reynolds : A torrid end to the first half could signal a monster year.
- Jake Arrieta : His elbow issue is worth monitoring, but Arrieta has shown incredible promise.
- Matt Wieters : The first-time All-Star is starting to show what all that hype was about.
There have been few bright spots, as 23-year-old rookie Zach Britton -- not immune from bad starts -- had largely held his own in a difficult AL East, but he was demoted to Double-A on Sunday as part of a roster crunch and an eight-game skid in which he posted a 6.86 ERA.
Arrieta -- who has just over a year under his belt -- has shown flashes of dominance, but like most of the young arms, he struggles to go deep into games. The Oriole starters went a full six innings just twice in the 16 games heading into the break, posting a 9.56 ERA during that stretch.
"My hopes were higher," president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said of the Orioles' first half. "Given some of the performance and some of the injuries, [our record] is probably to no great surprise."
MacPhail dismissed any notion of alarm for the young arms given their relative lack of experience, but given last season's second half surge -- which was by and large the same group -- their performance has been concerning.
"We've got some young guys who have more or less done what we anticipated, and some who have taken a step back," MacPhail said. "It's definitely something we are looking at to try to augment."
The Orioles must also decide what to do with ace Jeremy Guthrie, who is one of their most viable trade chips, as he continues to provide innings. Additionally, there is the matter of Hardy's future with the club. The free agent-to-be continues to be a hot topic as Baltimore tries to work out an extension.
MacPhail, who doesn't have a contract beyond this season, has a lot of decisions to make regarding the July 31 Trade Deadline and what to do with underperforming veterans Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero, who are both on one-year deals.
"We will just take a look and see how we feel," MacPhail said of his future beyond 2011. "I don't feel any great need to address [my contract] until it expires."
As for the upcoming Trade Deadline, the Orioles aren't expected to be in firesale mode, but they will make deals that will improve the state of the current club and that of the organization going forward.
"When I hear somebody say we are on a two, three, five year-old plan, it's just somebody trying to cover their rear," said Showalter, who took over the helm last August. "You grind like heck each day and try to get closer to your goal. I understand the job description, I understand what we are trying to do, the task. I don't find it daunting. I find it challenging. But don't tell me it can't be done. Every day that passes, I feel that we are more sure about who is and who isn't."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.