Clubhouse meetings are usually reserved for underachieving
teams playing with little energy. Believing his team guilty on both counts, Orioles manager Ray Miller closed the doors before last night's game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and for 20 minutes gave a rather emphatic, decidedly one-sided talk.
Part of the monologue focused on the American League rearview mirror, the one that now shows the Orioles 9 1/2 games behind the front-running New York Yankees in the American League East.
"One thing I told the club is to stop talking about New York and to start talking about [second place] Boston," Miller said. "It doesn't mean a thing until we catch Boston. We're 20-21 and we've got to do better than that. You try and play and catch up to Boston. You get Boston out of the way and then you worry about New York."
After last night, maybe it's time to worry about the Orioles.
Looking tired and punchless, the Orioles passed the season's quarter pole with a dispirited 5-2 loss to the Devil Rays, dropping below .500 for the first time since Opening Day, and for the first time this late in a season since July 28, 1996, when they fell to 51-52 before embarking on a wild-card run.
This time, they're offering little reason to expect an immediate turnaround.
"We've just got to turn it up a notch," said starting pitcher Scott Erickson (4-4), who took the loss after allowing five runs on 11 hits in seven innings. "It's too late to say it's too early. Either we turn it up a notch or we dig a hole that's too deep."
A sellout Camden Yards crowd of 47,538 witnessed a combined six-hitter shared by five Devil Rays pitcher, the most impressive being rookie starter Rolando Arrojo (6-2), who shut them down for five innings before leaving with back spasms.
"I think the enthusiasm needs to improve a little bit, but that comes with success, too," Miller said. "I think for the most part everybody has been trying hard. But we don't have any speed. If we get three singles, we score a run. For the most part, we can't get our leadoff guy on, have him steal second, move to third and score on fly ball. We don't have that. We have to have two and three hits all the time.
"When we hit home runs we need men on base. And we haven't been getting those."
The Orioles managed a bases-empty homer from Eric Davis in the seventh inning, setting a club record of 18 consecutive games with at least one homer. Miller was unimpressed.
"We just hit a record -- 18 home runs in a row. Big deal. We ain't done nothing," Miller said of his team's corresponding 7-11 stretch. "The Atlanta Braves did the same thing [a 25-game streak]. They also won about 20 while they were doing it. You have to pitch good; you have to get timely hitting; you have to run the bases well."
The Orioles have received portions of each at various times but seldom a combination at a given moment. In losing their third straight to the expansion team, they allowed an unearned run, lost an out on the bases and were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Unable to mash, they dropped to 2-20 when allowing three runs or more, including 15 consecutive such losses.
"We need to get something going and all get on the same page. I think we have too good of a club to keep playing like this," said catcher Lenny Webster.
Lack of hitting creates a dull-looking lineup, a fact heightened by this team's plodding nature, Miller said.
"I keep saying we're going to hit. The track record says so," he said. "As long as guys are busting tail and are trying and are halfway intelligent in their thinking, I'm going to be happy with it. I've got to be happy with it. There's nothing else I can do. I can't hit."
Miller sees a team that has lost its swagger. Others wonder if something more valuable has been misplaced.
"You want everybody to go out there and give 100 percent," Erickson said. "That's all you can really ask. If everybody feels they're doing that, then we're doing the best we can. If we're not giving 100 percent, we've got to do something different."
Miller speaks of needing "controlled aggressiveness" from his lineup. The quality has so far proved elusive.
"Everything's got to come together. Somebody's got to step up a level, whoever it might be," Miller said. "You can't expect it be strictly [Rafael] Palmeiro or strictly [Harold] Baines. It can be anybody."
The Orioles managed only one rally against Arrojo, the Cuban refugee who defected during a pre-Olympic tour in July 1996. Thanks to Wade Boggs' throwing error against Roberto Alomar to lead off the fourth, the Orioles scored an unearned run on Palmeiro's one-out single to pull within 2-1.
Arrojo sidestepped further damage by striking out Cal Ripken and Jeffrey Hammonds.
Five days after pitching a five-hit shutout against the Minnesota Twins and three days after agreeing to a five-year, $32 million extension, Erickson again resembled the pitcher who leads the American League in hits allowed.