MILWAUKEE -- What happened to pitcher Dave Johnson last night was a reflection of what has been going on with the Orioles for the last 10 days: no middle ground.
Either the machinery works on all cylinders or there's a major blowout.
To Johnson, the 7-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers centered around one at-bat -- a seemingly harmless two-out walk to Darryl Hamilton in the fourth inning.
"I made a couple of pitches that were close and one I thought he might've swung at," said Johnson.
"I got mad at myself for getting out of my game a little bit -- and mad at the umpire [Ted Hendry] because he wouldn't ask for help on the checked swing. But that shouldn't have had anything to do with it.
"I shouldn't been in that situation [walking Hamilton]. I had good enough stuff to win the game. I shouldn't have been in a situation where a couple of bad pitches got me out of there."
But that's exactly what happened. Three ground balls found holes in the infield, and then Paul Molitor ripped a double to give Milwaukee a 5-2 lead. When Gary Sheffield led off the next inning with a home run, Johnson was through for the night.
But everything came back to the walk to Hamilton. "You can't walk a guy on five pitches in a spot like that," said manager Frank Robinson. "You've got to go after him, put him away."
Johnson agreed. "I never should have gotten to 2-and-0 on him," said the righthander. "With two outs I've got to make him hit the ball."
The pitcher's effort was much like that of the Orioles -- not as bad as it looked, but not good enough to get the job done.
The first seven innings seemed like one continuous opportunity against Jaime Navarro, who now has four wins in as many career decisions against the Orioles. Navarro gave up 11 hits in 6 2/3 innings before giving way to lefthander Mark Lee, but the Orioles were never able to put him away.
"We had enough opportunities," said Robinson. "But we had one guy [Dwight Evans] drive in three runs and nobody else could get any.
"That's what happens when you're not hitting as a team. Eventually you always get to the guys who aren't swinging the bat very good. And right now we've got quite a few like that."
Of the 10 men the Orioles left on base last night, half of them were standing on third base when the final out of the inning was recorded.
"We had men on first and third three times and the bases loaded once and got one run," said Robinson. Three of those opportunities came with one out, making things even more agonizing. "It was a strange game," said Robinson.
After falling behind 5-2, the Orioles had two late opportunities to get back into contention, the first of which presented Robinson with his first real strategic decision of the young season. Singles by Sam Horn and Chris Hoiles put runners on first and third with one out, put Navarro on the ropes for the third time and brought Bill Ripken to the plate in the sixth inning.
Robinson had Joe Orsulak available, but decided against pinch-hitting for Ripken, whose .291 average was the club's best last year. "You're always thinking about every possibility," said Robinson. "But I didn't want to do it so early."
Since the sixth inning is not exactly considered early, Robinson was obviously thinking long range. When he was asked if the fact that the season is still in its infancy had a bearing on his decision, he replied with one word: "Yes."
With a lineup that should be reasonably stable, Robinson doesn't want to start taking the bat away from people this early.
"We'll be all right," he said. "It's coming. Cal [Ripken] is swinging the bat good, [Glenn] Davis is starting to come along, Sam made good contact twice and Dwight is starting to swing the bat."
While he might be reluctant at this point to make in-game changes, Robinson has no qualms about juggling his lineup. "I've got a couple of guys I want to give a day off," he said. "There could be as many as four changes tomorrow [today]."
Bob Melvin -- who hasn't caught since Opening Day and is one of the Orioles who has battled a flu bug that hit the team in Texas -- Orsulak, Leo Gomez and Brady Anderson, who has also been sick, were the leading candidates to be in the lineup.
"The off-days early in the year make it difficult to keep everybody sharp," said Robinson. "You have to play to get any kind of rhythm, but at the same time there are others who have to get their playing time."
The Orioles' problem right now is finding the right mix. They have had periods of good pitching, good hitting and good defense. But they haven't really meshed the three ingredients, and they still need to resolve some questions about the final makeup of the roster.
By this time next week, after playing nine of their first 14 games on the road, the Orioles should have a few more answers.