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How to Snap a 19-Game Losing Streak

The Orioles won Wednesday night for the first time since Aug. 2, doing so in a way that felt just as weird and unlikely as their last few weeks.

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A 19-game losing streak is astonishingly unlikely.

Even for a bad team—a very bad team—it requires a marriage of bad timing and bad luck that is all but unbelievable. It feels inscrutable. For a losing streak this long, there are no logical, satisfying answers. It cannot be adequately explained by something like the weaknesses of the pitching staff; it asks for something more esoteric, more ambiguous, like a cursed feral cat running through the outfield on a warm night. It’s all just too improbable to be justified by anything else. A losing streak this long is rarer than a perfect game, or an unassisted triple play, or a player hitting a home run on his first pitch in the majors. (It’s been done just 11 times in 120 years of modern professional baseball.) It is a bizarre, depressing marvel.

Aug 25, 2021; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander (25) celebrates with teammates after beating against the Los Angeles Angels ending their 19 game loosing streak. at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

This is all to say that it should be close to inconceivable that the Orioles lost 19 consecutive games this August. It should be close to inconceivable that any team has lost so many ever. As much as a streak like that is about the quality of play—bad!—it is perhaps even more about absurdity and improbability. Those are the qualities that differentiate a prolonged losing streak. And for Baltimore, those were the qualities that ended it, too. When the O’s finally won Wednesday, snapping the streak a few games short of history at 19, they did so with a night that felt just as weird and unlikely as their last few weeks as a whole had been: Orioles 10, Angels 6.

This is what they did. How to snap a 19-game losing streak:

Step 1: Do something remarkable

The Angels are not an especially difficult team to beat. But they make it considerably harder when their starting pitcher (and leadoff hitter) is Shohei Ohtani.

On Ohtani’s first pitch of the night, Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins sent a fastball flying for a home run. A few batters later, Anthony Santander did the same thing. No team had hit more than one home run in a single game off Ohtani all year. But the Orioles became the first to do it, and they did so in the first inning. (They added a third later on for good measure.) Here was something that no team had been able to do to one of the best players in the world, until the O’s did it matter-of-factly, right up front.

But, of course, Ohtani’s pitching is only one half of his game. Yet the threat that he posed at the plate was neutralized just as it had been on the mound. Against Baltimore's pitching Wednesday, Ohtani went 0-for-4, striking out three times.

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Here was a rarity: The Orioles had taken the most interesting player in the world and very briefly made him look, well, almost ordinary. It made little sense. Which was perfect—how could it be otherwise?

Step 2: Fall behind

Maybe it would have been nice for the Orioles to take that 2–0 first-inning lead and run with it. But that would have been simple—nice, straightforward, undramatic—and who wants to end such a weighty streak like that? You need a little more tension to achieve the right level of catharsis. You need to fall behind.

And so right after hitting that triumphant pair of home runs to go up 2–0, they had a messy frame that tied it up, with a single, a double and a hit-by-pitch. (They are not the worst pitching staff in the majors for nothing: 76 ERA+.) Two innings later, they allowed a pair of home runs of their own, falling behind 6–2.

Baltimore's streak had included losses of every texture and complexion; some bitter, some mundane, many blowouts, a few close. This one looked as if it might be particularly twisted—it was one that had featured some genuine moments of hope, and now the O's were gradually blinking out, fighting to stay on.

Step 3: Get lucky

A losing streak this long takes on a form of its own. It’s almost physical—the streak becomes not what the team is doing so much as who the team is. It’s inescapable. It’s discussed as a sign of everything that ails baseball, or as some kind of abstract, metaphysical punishment, or as a signal to tweak the rules of the league to ensure that a team is never this bad again.

All of which can make it very frustrating to talk about what is actually going on here. Yes, the team needs to play better, and it needs to invest more in core areas, and it needs to have a better sense of its long-term development. But the immediate answer to a losing streak is much smaller than all of that. What the team needs, mostly, is just one lucky break.

In the eighth inning, Baltimore got one.

After having mounted a steady comeback effort to make it a one-run game, the Orioles led off the inning with a single and a double. The Angels chose to have pitcher Jake Petricka load the bases with an intentional walk to DJ Stewart. But then Petricka missed way outside with a slider—kept missing with his two-seamer—and promptly walked in the game-tying run on four pitches.

So the Angels called for a pitching change. And the new pitcher, James Hoyt, walked in the game-winning run.

It is such a silly, unlikely thing—to have two pitchers issue two bases-loaded walks to allow two crucial runs to score. It makes little sense; there are no logical, satisfying answers. It is a dreadful way to lose. But it’s a glorious way to win.

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