CHICAGO -- Manager Johnny Oates called the mother of all team meetings last night. He kept the clubhouse door closed for nearly two hours after the Orioles self-destructed once again in a 7-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park.
No one is saying what went on inside, but Oates continues to search for answers to the club's season-opening slump and it stands to reason that he was asking his players -- both individually and collectively -- to join in the hunt.
It was not the first time this year he addressed the team, but in the nearly two weeks since his fiery tirade in Texas, very little has changed. The Orioles continue to make base-running mistakes, as they did in the first and second innings last night, and they continue to look very little like a divisional contender.
The loss dropped them 7 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East, farther back than they were at any point during the 1992 season. It's still early, but that is small consolation when you're 5-12 and showing no signs of turning things around.
"Sometimes," Oates said, "it gets too late to be early."
That's why it was important for him to go back behind closed doors again. He has never been a big fan of team meetings, but he has never been in a situation quite like this one. Hence the marathon skull session.
How long was it?
For the record, the meeting lasted 1 hour and 55 minutes. Longer than Fernando Valenzuela's four-inning performance in his second major-league start of the season. Longer than Frank Thomas' three-run home run in the first inning. Longer than most major motion pictures, though only slightly longer than the opening credits of "Gone with the Wind."
Frankly, Oates didn't care how long it took.
He had tried everything he could to alter the chemistry of his BTC reeling club yesterday. He shuffled the lineup. He tried to force the action.
The Orioles are the lowest scoring team in the American League and didn't do anything to endanger that status against White Sox left-hander Wilson Alvarez, who pitched eight scoreless innings and combined with reliever Scott Radinsky on a seven-hit shutout.
Valenzuela showed significant improvement over his performance in Texas 13 days ago, giving up four runs on six hits over four innings, but he had consumed his 80-pitch limit after only four innings. Oates seemed very pleased, but he went through the same post-game routine as he did after Valenzuela's first Orioles start.
"Poor Fernando," Oates said. "He must think that every time he pitches, I call a meeting."
The burning question in spring training was whether Valenzuela could come back after nearly two years on the outskirts of baseball. The question last night was whether he could overcome the collective bad karma that has turned the Orioles into a traveling seminar in crisis management.
He did not have any answers in the early innings, but neither did the rest of his struggling team. The first batter he faced -- White Sox second baseman Joey Cora -- hit a soft two-hopper to second base and Harold Reynolds threw the ball wildly past David Segui at first for an error.
Valenzuela complicated the situation by walking outfielder Mike Huff on four pitches, then threw a full-count pitch to Thomas that ended up in the left-field bleachers. It was Thomas' first home run of the season, but it was his 11th against the Orioles since the start of the 1991 season.
Valenzuela would give up one more run before he gave way to reliever Alan Mills, but he pitched well enough to stay on course for his Camden Yards debut on Saturday.
"I thought he threw the ball well," Oates said. "He had a decent screwball and cutter [cut fastball]. Who knows what would have happened if we had made that first play?"
It was the second game in a row in which an Orioles starter gave up three runs in the first inning, but the situation would have been far from hopeless if the Orioles had done anything with a handful of early opportunities.
Alvarez gave up four hits in the first two innings, but was helped at every turn by the Orioles' seemingly chronic inability to run the bases.
Brady Anderson ran into an out at third base on a ground ball to shortstop by Cal Ripken in the first inning. Glenn Davis was thrown out stealing on an abortive hit-and-run play and Leo Gomez was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a single by David Segui in the second. Throw in a routine out at first base and the Orioles had been thrown out at every base before they had gone through the lineup the first time.
Valenzuela settled down to retire eight of the next 10 batters after Thomas took him deep, but he struggled in the fourth and was replaced by Mills at the start of the fifth. He was charged with three earned runs on six hits, which dropped his ERA to 11.05.
"I think, yeah, I felt good," Valenzuela said. "I threw the ball over the plate more. I felt pretty good. But I walked a guy on four pitches -- that was a big mistake -- and a couple of pitches hurt me. That was the game."