Birds hit roadblock, try to stay in gear

June 18, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

CLEVELAND -- In a marathon they call it "hitting the wall."

It's that point where runners plod, one dragging step after another, sometimes not knowing if they have enough to finish, let alone win.

The good ones survive, sometimes by memory, and push ahead. Others, many times the inexperienced, drop back into the pack and eventually call it a race.

Baseball teams, and players, go through similar phases. One of Orioles manager John Oates' favorite phrases is "hitting a wall."

Generally, it refers to a player who, after making steady progress, reaches a certain plateau and then finds himself walking a treadmill, with the next level barely beyond reach.

Teams get that way too, and that is the position the Orioles find themselves in today after a 3-4 road trip that, based on expectations, has to be classified as disappointing.

This isn't a year ago, when anytime the Orioles came close to the .500 mark for anything -- a series, a week, a road trip or a month -- was cause for celebration.

And neither is it five weeks ago, when the Orioles were in the process of climbing 13 games above .500 (24-11 on May 16). From that point they were in the enviable position of assuring themselves of being competitive, having a successful season, and maybe even contending for a division title merely by breaking even the rest of the way.

After all, an 87-75 record has been known to go a long way in the American League's Eastern Division in recent years. The Orioles finished second, two games out, with an identical mark only three seasons ago, and the Toronto Blue Jays won last year with a 91-71 mark.

The Orioles have soared as many as 15 games over .500 (37-22 as recently as last Friday night), but in a little over a month they have gone only 14-15. It's not unusual. Most of the good teams have already gone through stretches at least as difficult, including all four of the division leaders.

Yesterday's 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians wrapped up a road trip that started out in promising fashion with two straight wins in Detroit, and finished with four losses in the last five games for the Orioles.

Disappointing? Yes. Unexpected? Not necessarily.

"Sure, if you look at the records of the teams we were playing, you'd say the odds were better of our winning than they would've been if we'd been playing, say Toronto and Minnesota," said Oates. "But it doesn't always work out. The Mets and Cardinals are going through a spell now, the Pirates did earlier and so did Toronto."

Yesterday the Orioles had their ace to wind up the road trip, but the Indians had a trump card left.

Just when it appeared time to confirm Mike Mussina's reservations for the All-Star Game, he ran into another righthander with the same credentials. Charles Nagy put on a very good imitation of ex-Oriole Mike Cuellar, who had a knack of scattering hits and stranding baserunners.

"It was a big relief when it was over," admitted Nagy, who allowed the staggering total of 13 hits, yet still only threw 104 pitches. "It seemed like every inning I had to pitch my way out of a jam."

If he wasn't overwhelming, Nagy (9-3, 2.20 ERA) was persistent and effective. The righthander did not walk a batter, and that was the difference.

"I've seen him three times now and that's the least [stuff] I've ever seen from him," said Oates. "I thought he was very hitable, but that tells you something about him."

After giving up six hits but only one run in the first three innings, Nagy suddenly switched to his Roger Clemens imitation, striking out five in the next two innings.

"That's because he was throwing a pitch, the split-finger fastball, that we'd never seen him throw before," said Oates. "Some guys didn't think he had one, but somebody came back and said 'he's got one now.' "

Nagy, who should be a lock for the All-Star team, has all six of the Indians' complete games. He has not given up a walk in three starts this month and has a string of 28 2/3 innings without putting a runner on base.

Conversely, Mussina was a little erratic by his standards, walking three, throwing a wild pitch and falling behind more hitters than normal.

Still, he was damaged only in one inning, when three straight hits -- a single by Kenny Lofton (6-for-10 the past two games) and doubles by Thomas Howard and Carlos Baerga -- were converted into three runs.

"We did everything today to win a game except get some hits when we needed them," said Oates. "That's the only thing wrong we did out there.

"Now, I'm just looking forward to getting away from baseball for a day, getting my batteries recharged and coming back ready on Friday," said Oates.

Hoping the Orioles will be ready to make another run at "the wall."

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