Fumbling Orioles can't drop ball on needed shake-up

MIKE LITTWIN

May 20, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

It should be painfully clear by now: The Orioles have to do something, anything. Just so long as it's dramatic. Just so long as it's sufficiently loud to wake the dead, because that's what the Orioles are -- dead, right on their wobbly feet.

It's time -- maybe past time -- to shake up the Orioles. You know it. I know it. Frank Robinson knows it. I wouldn't even be surprised if Eli Jacobs knew it.

The problem is what to do.

Maybe you saw the game yesterday. It was seat-cushion day, and the fans showed remarkable restraint in tossing only two onto the field. As if to return the favor, the Orioles didn't throw any balls into the stands, although they did throw a few to the wrong base.

It was ugly, 10-2 ugly, turn-your-head ugly, bury-it-where-the-dog-can't-find-it ugly.

The game started this way: Luis Polonia hit a little pop-up behind the pitcher's mound. It should have been the third baseman's ball, or the first baseman's. But Bill Ripken had to race in from second, only to drop the ball. But all was not lost because Polonia had rounded first and was caught between bases. The play you learn in junior high is to race toward the runner and make him commit. Instead, Ripken threw directly to first, and first baseman Milligan threw directly into Polonia's back. The runner was safe at second, the battle was joined and the Orioles wouldn't get to bat until they were behind, 4-0.

"Do you sag?" Frank Robinson asked in answering the same question. "Sure you do, if it's already happened 25 times before. If someone keeps hitting you over the head with a hammer and someone picks up a hammer, you flinch. It's human nature. Yeah, we sagged."

It got worse, ever worse. Simple plays: In the sixth inning, there's another botched rundown. Milligan has a man caught off first base, and as he tags him out, a runner scores from third. Milligan never looked. Never once. Ever worse.

The team doesn't hit (six of the starters entered the game batting under .232), it doesn't field and it doesn't get much pitching. Which brings us to Jeff Ballard, yesterday's starter. After getting pulled in the third, Ballard said he pitched fine. He always says that. He says he'd take that same stuff out there every night. The problem is, he does.

"That was the least stuff he had all season," Robinson said.

Ballard (2-6) says ground balls keep finding holes, and they do. But maybe it's because his pitches are so hittable. He says he doesn't get good support in the field, and he's right. But it's time for Ballard to figure out what he's doing wrong. No one is that unlucky.

The team isn't unlucky, either. It is, however, a basket case.

Take yesterday as an example. The Orioles lost two pitchers, or did they? Dave Johnson was placed on the disabled list, although before he was examined no Orioles official had any idea he was injured. It is being rumored, by the way, that the Orioles are trying to trade Johnson. Then, Mark Williamson, according to trainer Richie Bancells, said he couldn't pitch that day because of a slightly strained groin, meaning Paul Kilgus had to go 5 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. After the game, though, Williamson claimed he could have pitched if necessary.

The Orioles would be a soap opera, except if they were a TV show, they'd have been canceled.

"It's a total collapse," Robinson said. "It's not one area. It's all areas. I've thought about a lot of things I might do, but I've learned that you don't make decisions when your mind is not at ease.

"Do you stay with people or do you try to infuse some fresh blood? When do you do it -- if you do it? This has to be addressed. It has to be addressed soon."

Milligan, he says, is "a puzzle." He uses the same word for Craig Worthington. For Brady Anderson, Robinson offers "mystery." Of Bill Ripken, Robinson says he doesn't expect him to hit .291, as he did last season, but maybe .250. Now, he's hitting .198. Milligan is hitting .219, Worthington .222, Anderson .157, Chris Hoiles .197.

It goes on and on.

"This is the kind of season when you tear your hair out," said Robinson. "It's everything. It's like you don't have enough toes and fingers to close up all the holes in the dam."

Here are some things the Orioles could do (and, no, firing Robinson isn't one): Send down Worthington and bring up Leo Gomez; bench Bill Ripken and play either Juan Bell or Tim Hulett at second; send down Anderson and give somebody else -- there's a long list -- a shot. There are fewer realistic options available on the pitching staff, but something has to give. Bob Milacki is getting a shot in the rotation. Mike Flanagan may get another shot. They have to bring up a pitcher to help in the bullpen.

Whatever they do, the Orioles must send a message to themselves, and they should send it in the overnight mail.

They are 12-22, which is the worst record in the American League. Of 12 series this season, they've won one and tied two. And they show absolutely no signs of improvement.

Is it time to panic? No. Is it time to get creative? You bet. Once Glenn Davis went down, the Orioles were no longer contenders. But they can't be this bad, can they? Well, can they?

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