Frank Robinson says this is the time for patience.
Dave Johnson can only hope he fits into that picture.
"Anybody can be patient when you're going good," the Orioles' manager said after his club's latest malfunction, a 10-1 loss at the hands of the Seattle Mariners at Memorial Stadium last night. But this is when it's important to be patient."
Almost in the next breath, however, Robinson admitted patience doesn't necessarily translate into unlimited opportunities. When asked if Johnson will make his next scheduled start (Saturday or Sunday in California), Robinson declined to answer.
"That's too far in advance the way things are going right now," said Robinson. "I can't say yes or no."
He does have alternatives, though, and he did allude to one of them later in his post-game discussion. "Maybe we should just go with four [starters] right now," he said.
Thursday's off-day will give Robinson that opportunity -- and it would also give him the chance to go with only three starters this time around if he was willing to send them out every fourth day, another possibility he didn't discount.
In addition it would be easy for Robinson to flip-flop Johnson with Bob Milacki, fresh from a strong 5 1/3 -inning outing on Sunday. The options are there, it just remains to be seen if Robinson will be patient enough to give Johnson another shot at staying in the rotation.
Johnson (1-3) is mystified by his recent troubles, says he feels better than any time last year, feels he is throwing the ball well, and thinks he's pitching in bad luck right now.
The numbers, however, suggest more than bad luck is involved, even though neither he nor pitching coach Al Jackson can pinpoint the exact problem. Since pitching 6 1/3 scoreless innings against Texas, Johnson's last four outings have been like reruns of a torturous nightmare.
He has pitched four innings each time -- giving up 25 hits and 20 earned runs. That computes to a 15.00 earned run average (his overall ERA is 9.82). Johnson gave up four runs in the second inning, then didn't get anybody out in the fifth, being charged with two more runs while spreading nine hits throughout the lineup.
By the time he left, every Mariners starter had collected a hit off him. "It's disappointing to get hit around like that," said Johnson. "It seems like there's always one pitch that turns a whole inning around."
Last night that pitch went to Harold Reynolds, whose two-out, two-run single made the score 4-0. A couple of infield hits (Edgar Martinez and Greg Briley), a ground single to right (Pete O'Brien) and another safety by Omar Vizquel had already given the Mariners a 2-0 lead.
"Every ground ball seems to find a hole," said Johnson. "Usually I can get a double play and avoid the big inning."
That has not been the case in his last three starts. Each time Johnson has been victimized by the big inning.
"I thought I threw well," he said. "I thought I made some good pitches. I feel better than I did at any time last year, but it just seems that every time a guy gets on first base, there's a ground ball that goes into a hole.
"It's not like they're hitting doubles into the gaps . . . it's just hit, hit, hit," said Johnson, who was victimized by nine singles. "I'd like to sit here and say I've got to change something, do something different. But when you change things just to change that's when you really get into trouble."
Not that Johnson isn't already having more than his share.
"I just have to keep being aggressive," he said.
Jackson likewise was unable to explain Johnson's streak. "It's going to happen to him," said the pitching coach. "It just so happens that it's happened to him three times in a row.
"He couldn't have pitched three guys any better than he did in the first inning," said Jackson. "It was right by the book . . . bop, bop, bop. But then he'd make two good pitches, two bad pitches."
It was difficult to tell if the Mariners' early lead had anything to do with it or not, but the Orioles seemed to be in slow motion all night. After Sam Horn's homer in the second inning, they never did mount a threat against Rich DeLucia (2-2), who came in with a 7.00 ERA.
"You can't blame the offense," admitted Johnson. "It's difficult to come back when you let your team get behind by four runs."
lTC Yet, that's exactly what the Orioles had done the day before against Milwaukee. That 5-4 win was "the best game we've played because we did the things we had to do in order to win the game," said Robinson.
There was, however, no carryover effect last night. "That was the least intensity we've played with all year," said Robinson. "I don't know why.
"I thought after a game like yesterday's we'd come out fired up and ready to go. I expected more enthusiasm and intensity."
Those ingredients are rarely found in 10-1 losses. "I have confidence that we will be a good team," said Robinson, who has repeated that belief 11 times already this year.
"We're in trouble," he admitted, "but not to the point where it's a lost cause. We're not playing well overall as a team."
At this point, Robinson is right when he says patience is important. But he also knows that patience does not necessarily mean waiting for things to happen.
"If you just wait it out," he said, "you could dig a hole so deep that you can never get out."
That's precisely what the Orioles wanted to avoid this year. And with a long stretch against Western Division teams loaded with pitching depth, that possibility could become reality.
It's not enough to say it's only 17 games -- because that represents 10 percent of the schedule. Five games under .500 is too much for a team that hopes to contend, regardless of the date.