O's, after an ugly start, are halfway respectable Recent revival gives club second chance

July 11, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

If the Orioles could add a postscript to the first half of the 1993 season, it probably would read like bumper-sticker wisdom:

"Tough times don't last. Tough people do."

There was a time when it looked like they were never going to recover from the 5-13 start that put the club at an instant disadvantage in the American League East. There was a time when everyone was ready to concede that preseason expectations had been overblown. There has been a lot of trying times, but the Orioles have arrived at the All-Star break with their division title hopes intact.

Could it be that the trials and tribulations of April and May will translate into a tougher, more confident team down the stretch?

"I don't know that it makes you a better team," said manager Johnny Oates, whose team now sits just 1 1/2 games out of first place. "But I think it makes better individuals. I think the nature of life is, you learn more during the bad times than you do during the good times."

The Orioles learned something that may serve them well over the long haul. They learned that they had enough talent to overcome a series of serious setbacks. They dropped 10 1/2 games out of first place in late May and stormed back with 20 wins in June. They lost Mike Devereaux and Harold Baines for 3 1/2 weeks in May and held together long enough to set up the resurgence. They lost Brady Anderson for 15 days to chickenpox recently and kept right on coming.

"I think there's some satisfaction in the overall first half," Oates said, "considering where we've come from and where we are now."

No one knows what happened at the outset, or why. The Orioles played well in spring training and then forgot how to play on Opening Day. They lost six of their first seven games and fell to the bottom of the standings. By all accounts, the team was supposed to be a strong division contender, but by the end of April, the only thing the Orioles were leading the division in was team meetings.

"I still don't know how that happened," pitcher Rick Sutcliffe said. "We just made so many mistakes. It's hard to imagine this club playing like that, but it may turn out to be what we needed. What we realized was, we're good, but we can't make mistakes and expect to beat people. Since then, we've eliminated a lot of those mistakes."

A bad act

It was ugly. In a game against the California Angels on April 17 that capsulized the early season collapse, the Orioles turned a bases-loaded single by Devereaux into a team meeting at third base. Three runners converged on the bag and nobody scored.

There were breakdowns in almost every area. The offense ranked last in the league in runs per game throughout the first month of the season. The starting rotation included only one pitcher -- Mike Mussina -- who finished the first month with a winning record. Gregg Olson struggled so badly that he temporarily lost his job as the club's primary closer.

Now that the horrible start is just a bad memory, most of the players who suffered through it are convinced that they are better for the experience.

"As a team, I think we learned that we could rebound from what happened," Olson said, "and we can do it again. Individually, I feel that it made me a lot stronger mentally."

A number of individual slumps led to the early season struggle. First baseman Glenn Davis struggled so badly in April and May that he accepted a voluntary assignment to the minor leagues. He would have been back by now, but his jaw was broken in an altercation at a Virginia Beach nightspot.

Devereaux got off to a slow start, and Anderson slumped for a month before embarking on a career-high 11-game hitting streak in June. The offensive problems of shortstop Cal Ripken have become a citywide obsession, though he has produced enough runs to keep critics at bay.

On the rebound

Olson bounced back quickly, regaining the closer role and converting 19 of 20 save opportunities. Ripken continues to fight a lengthy battle to raise his batting average (.227) , but he also says he and the team are better for the bad experience.

"I think you learn a little bit about yourself when you come back from hard times," Ripken said. "That's helpful individually and as a team, but I think we all realize that there are still a lot of things we can improve on. Personally, I look forward to having a better second half . . . to contributing more. I think as a team, we can be very hopeful that we will continue to improve."

If the slide was a team effort, the turnaround was no different. Left-hander Jamie Moyer (5-3, 3.13) has been spectacular since replacing injured Arthur Rhodes. Ben McDonald has bounced back from a slow start to fashion the lowest ERA (3.52) in the rotation, even if his won-loss record (5-8) does not reflect it. Sutcliffe has struggled in his past couple of starts, but his 8-4 record is emblematic of the leadership he provides no matter how well he pitches.

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