Weak pitching disarmed Orioles' hopes from start Rotation hasn't met expectations

October 06, 1991|By Peter Schmuck

The festival atmosphere of this final weekend notwithstanding, it has been a dramatic anticlimax for the

Baltimore Orioles. Their season ends today, but like so many of their games this year, it was over almost before it started.

First baseman Glenn Davis, whose arrival in Baltimore swelled preseason expectations, suffered a freak neck injury in spring training. Right-hander Ben McDonald, who had been announced the Opening Day starter before the opening day of the exhibition season, started the season on the disabled list for the second year in a row.

That was only the beginning. It has been the year of pitching dangerously, and the starting rotation unraveled so quickly and so completely that the Orioles never became a factor in the American League East.

Statistics can be deceiving, but there is one that tells the whole sad story. The Orioles have been behind by three runs or more before the third inning in 42 games. In one out of every four games this year, the bullpen was stirring before the parking lot was full.

"That's the tough one," manager John Oates said. "I give our players a lot of credit, because when you look back at it, we were down by three runs in the third inning a quarter of the time, but we've had very few games we've been completely out of it. It seemed like there were a lot of times we ended up just one play or one hit short."

True enough, the Orioles have been resourceful enough to turn a number of potential blowouts into a number of one-run losses, which is good for the soul if not for the standings. It is also true that the club has lost 38 of those 42 games, leaving Oates convinced that a solidified starting rotation would put his team back into contention as early as next year.

"We have to improve our starting pitching to move up another notch," he said. "I know there is no guarantee that someone is going to come in and win 20 games for you, but we need someone to come in and give us 200 innings and take the ball every fifth day."

Oates is determined not to make the same mistake the club made at the start of this season. The Orioles seriously overestimated the starting rotation, which then included Jeff Ballard, Jeff Robinson, Dave Johnson and Jose Mesa. Not one of them will finish the season with an ERA below 5.00 -- the pitching equivalent of the Mendoza Line.

It was that miscalculation, more than anything else, that cost former manager Frank Robinson his job in late May, though the pitching collapse was more a product of the false optimism that has infected the Orioles front office since the "Why Not?" season of 1989.

The club was depending on Ballard to win 15 games after a 2-11 season in 1990. General manager Roland Hemond was hoping that Jeff Robinson would come back from a series of arm injuries to pitch the way he did for the Detroit Tigers in 1988. Johnson, who won a team-high 13 games last year, was the closest thing the Orioles had to a proven pitcher.

No one could have foreseen the series of injuries that kept McDonald from taking his place at the head of the rotation, but there was far more wishful thinking than there was organizational pitching depth.

The club took a look at some free-agent pitchers during the winter, but as it turned out, there were fewer dependable arms in the starting rotation in April 1991 than there were in October 1990. Right-hander Pete Harnisch went to the Houston Astros in the Davis deal and has ranked among the National League ERA leaders all year. Robinson came from the Tigers for Mickey Tettleton and won all of four games before he was optioned to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.

Tettleton has hit 31 home runs for the Tigers. It was that kind of season.

No one, however, could accuse the front office of neglecting the offense. The Orioles signed Dwight Evans as a free agent in December and gave up Harnisch, Curt Schilling and Steve Finley to acquire Davis from the Astros in January.

The heart of the batting order, with Davis, Evans and Randy Milligan batting behind Cal Ripken, figured to give the Orioles enough offensive punch to compete in what generally was considered a soft division.

But the early warning signs were everywhere. Davis felt a "kink" in his neck after taking a swing in one of the early exhibition games. It would turn out to be a rare and career-threatening nerve injury. Milligan suffered a severe ankle sprain in the team's opening exhibition game. It would bother him the rest of the year.

The two of them were supposed to provide protection for Ripken, whose batting average had declined the previous two seasons as he tried to pick up more and more of the offensive load. Instead, Davis dropped out of the lineup for four months and Milligan didn't begin hitting with authority until late May.

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