OAKLAND, Calif. -- It has been three months since expectation first collided with reality, and the Baltimore Orioles are still trying to pick up the jagged pieces of a shattered season.
This was supposed to be a team to contend with, but that was before the Glenn Davis medical mystery tour, before Ben McDonald became injury-prone and before almost everything that was supposed to be good about the Orioles wilted under the glare of those bright preseason projections.
The club's "Season to Remember" has been undermined by a team to forget. So, where to now?
The Orioles open the second half tonight in Oakland, still hoping to make a silk purse out of a sour year, though their performance through the first 80 games of the season did little to keep that hope alive.
"There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to be a winning team," said first baseman Randy Milligan. "What makes it so disappointing is that our expectations were so high, as high as they've been for myself. We haven't lived up to half of them."
The pitching has been erratic (and that's being kind) and the offensive performance has been inconsistent. If it weren't for Cal Ripken's impressive first-half performance, there would be nothing particularly noteworthy about the Orioles in 1991 except their frustration.
Ripken has been the lightning rod in an otherwise hostile competitive climate. He leads the American League with a .348 batting average and ranks among the league leaders in almost every other offensive category. Milligan is providing some backup after a slow start, and Sam Horn has contributed 14 home runs without the benefit of a full-time role, but it would have taken much more than that to overcome the explosive starting rotation.
The Orioles fell behind by 3-0 or worse in the first three innings 24 times in the first half and suffered a double-digit blowout an average of once every eight games. The starting rotation -- including disabled right-hander Dave Johnson -- is 21-26 with a combined ERA of 5.19.
How bad is that? Apparently not bad enough to cause a major upheaval in the starting rotation, because the problem is spread around so evenly. But on a successful staff, an individual pitcher with a losing record and a 5.19 ERA would be a roster move waiting to happen.
The bullpen has made a significant contribution, but it has functioned largely as a cleanup crew for a rotation that has
averaged less than five innings per start.
Perhaps the situation wouldn't look so grim if Davis had not suffered a freak neck injury and Ben McDonald had been able to start every fifth day and Dwight Evans could have avoided the disabled list. But every team has injuries. The good teams have ** the depth to overcome them.
For the Orioles, depth be not proud. They have sacrificed a roster spot all season because utility man Juan Bell is out of options and might be lost on waivers if the club attempts to return him to the minor leagues. The fact that Bell is only effective at shortstop and the fact that he won't be playing shortstop for the Orioles any time soon leaves room to wonder if the club is clinging to a seat cushion while the rest of the boat floats away.
The AL East race already has gotten away from them, though the Bell situation is only a minor part of the overall picture. The Toronto Blue Jays are preparing to turn the stretch run into a runaway. The Orioles are a stretch of the imagination away from doing anything about it.
But manager John Oates clings to the belief that things will improve dramatically, perhaps enough for the Orioles to be more than an afterthought at the end of the race.
"I sure hope so," he said. "I hope a whole lot of good things happen in the next three months. We've got 82 ballgames left. I'm not just talking about building for the future. It's not time to start thinking about next year yet."
The evidence indicates otherwise. The Orioles are 14 1/2 games out of first place and fading. They are off to the fifth-worst start in club history. They have played 80 games, probably enough to draw some conclusions -- and not very positive ones.
Who's to blame? Maybe no one. The front office made three major moves during the off-season, only one of which was subject to even moderate criticism.
The deal that sent Pete Harnisch, Steve Finley and Curt Schilling to the Houston Astros for Davis would be easy to second-guess now, but it was the right move at the time. The acquisition of free agent Dwight Evans was a low-risk venture that has worked out in spite of the Achilles' tendon injury that has kept him on the disabled list for three weeks. Even the Mickey Tettleton deal -- which doesn't look very good at the moment -- was completed for reasons that made sense at the time.