OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Oakland Coliseum is no place for a visiting team in a pitching slump, but the Orioles tried to appear unconcerned about the 10-game turnaround that has inflated their team ERA to its highest level of the year.
The team ERA was a league-leading 2.88 on May 17. It was 3.71 when Bob Milacki took the mound last night to face right-hander Mike Moore and an Oakland Athletics team that swept a three-game series at Camden Yards little more than a week ago.
"I don't know of too many teams that have finished the season with an ERA under 3.00," manager Johnny Oates said. "I don't think we're going to finish the year with a 2.30 team ERA, and I don't think we're going to end up with a 6.50 ERA. It's going to end up somewhere in between."
It has risen steadily since the pitching staff allowed 14 runs against the Chicago White Sox 13 days ago. That was the begin
ning of a 10-game string in which the club averaged 6.72 earned runs and lost seven times.
Will the real Orioles pitching staff please stand up?
"Everybody goes through periods like this," said veteran right-hander Rick Sutcliffe, who has started three times in the last nine games and has given up at least six earned runs in each appearance. "We're just going through a week or 10-day period where the pitching has been a little inconsistent.
"There are reasons. We're missing [Mike] Mussina and I've had to pitch on two days' rest. The key is to come back with another six-week stretch where you pitch the way we pitched the first six weeks. We certainly have the ability to do that."
Oates isn't trying to recapture that past glory. He didn't get carried away with the club's early-season success, and he is trying not to draw hasty conclusions about the team's first significant slump.
"You can't predict what is going to happen over the next three or four months," he said. "I've got a better chance of predicting what Cal [Ripken] Jr. is going to do, because he has done it for 10 years. I would much rather try to do that than predict what a Mike Mussina is going to do in his first full season."
The bulk of the pitching staff is too young to have a track record. Mussina has spent 3 1/2 months in a major league starting rotation. Ben McDonald has been around a year longer, but his progress has been interrupted by injuries too often to consider him much more than a rookie. And Sutcliffe, a 13-year veteran, has had numerous physical setbacks the past couple of years, affecting his consistency.
The key -- as far Oates is concerned -- is to keep a rein on the unrealistic expectations that may have grown out of the club's terrific start.
"If you're under four [4.00 ERA], I think you're going to be OK," he said. "I think if we ended up under four, we're making progress. We're a whole lot better off than we were last year, but the idea is to take small steps in the right direction, instead of risking one big step in the wrong direction.
"It's kind of like investing. You can spend your whole life looking for that one big score, but you'd be better off taking a lot of small steps toward the overall purpose."
The ERA can be a deceptive statistic anyway. The Orioles had a 2.53 ERA in 1972 and didn't win the American League East title. By contrast, the St. Louis Cardinals won the 1987 pennant with a 3.91 mark. Sutcliffe's 1984 Chicago Cubs won the NL East with a 3.84 ERA.
"I don't worry much about ERA," Sutcliffe said. "I'm speaking for myself, not the team, but I won the ERA title in 1982. It went right down to the wire between myself and Jim Palmer. I figured I was going to get this giant trophy. I got a real nice trophy when I won Rookie of the Year in 1979, so I was really excited.
"All I got was a letter -- just a wrinkled, folded piece of paper. We stacked books on it. We ironed it. We tried everything to get the wrinkles out. It didn't work. We couldn't even frame it. I haven't worried too much about my ERA since then."