Weary O's reverting to midseason form

September 25, 1996|By John Eisenberg

BOSTON -- Time to change tenses.

The Orioles were hot.

They aren't anymore.

After winning 31 of 46 games, they have lost two in a row and five of their past eight.

Their big late-season run? It's history. Finished.

The Orioles are running out of gas as they try to run to the playoffs.

They began the last week of the season with a 1 1/2 -game lead in the wild-card race, but their bid to make the postseason is going to be a struggle.

Suddenly, they look like the .500 team that meandered through the first four months of the season, not the legitimate contender that thundered through August and most of September.

What has happened?

Their starting pitching has reverted to its lousy form from earlier in the season.

Their patchwork bullpen has come apart.

And their fearsome lineup, which carried the team on its big late-season run, finally is collapsing under the weight of trying to carry a mediocre pitching staff.

The Orioles have scored a combined 15 runs in their past two games, and lost both.

They have hit more home runs than any team in major-league history, but they're ninth in the league in ERA and that is killing them.

It's the pitching, stupid.

Yes, after all that excitement in August and September, we're back to that again.

David Wells got clobbered again last night, his third bad outing in a row.

Mike Mussina also has had three straight clunkers.

That's six bad starts in a row from the No. 1 and No. 2 guys in the rotation, a devastating blow in late September.

With Rocky Coppinger also fading badly, only Scott Erickson is consistently providing quality starts.

Manager Davey Johnson's decision to go to a four-man rotation turned the Orioles' season around in August, but the bill for that risky decision is coming in at the worst possible time.

The four main arms held up for more than a month, but not anymore.

"[Wells] has had a heavy workload and it's probably taken a toll," Johnson said last night. "The four-man got us this far, but guys are getting worn down."

The bullpen also has struggled after holding up surprisingly well down the stretch.

It blew a two-run lead at home against Milwaukee on Monday, turning a win into a critical defeat.

A playoff-worthy team never would have blown that game after )) taking a 7-5 lead into the eighth inning.

Then the bullpen caved in again last night after Wells was hammered; Archie Corbin walked in a run as the Red Sox pulled away with a four-run sixth inning.

Just as the key men in the rotation aren't delivering, neither are those in the bullpen.

Terry Mathews has allowed an earned run in five of his past six outings, Randy Myers had a 7.55 ERA since July 5 and Alan Mills had a loss and two blown saves in four outings before going down with a groin injury.

To understand why this is happening now, you have to take the long view of the season.

The Orioles were never more than an above-average club; they had a handful of All-Stars, a few role players and average pitching.

Their lack of depth was their biggest problem; not enough quality players and not enough quality pitchers.

They finally got hot in August because they stripped their product down to the bare essentials.

Lacking depth, they asked four starters and eight position players to carry them.

Johnson barely touched his lineup after the acquisitions of Eddie Murray and Todd Zeile.

The stripped-down team was a slugging monster for a while, but the strain of asking those players to carry the whole team is showing up now.

Since September began, Roberto Alomar was batting .235, Cal Ripken was batting .225 and Murray was batting .214 before last night's game.

B. J. Surhoff had just seven extra-base hits since early August.

Zeile had only one hit in his past 15 at-bats.

The moral was clear.

Johnson and Gillick had squeezed just about all the production there was to squeeze out of a team that was never that exceptional to begin with.

That's not to say that they can't turn it around and finish strong.

In this weirdest of Orioles seasons, in which little has gone according to form, it is foolish to discount any possibilities.

And with the Mariners also struggling for pitching and finishing the season on the road, the Orioles could have a losing week and still make the playoffs.

It's the wild card, baby; flawed teams hacking it out.

The Orioles will try to win in in spite of their fast-fading staff.

As Sparky Anderson once said, comparing baseball to the circus, "Pitching is the big tent in the middle. Everything else is a sideshow."

The Orioles have trouble in the big tent.

Big trouble.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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