A season prefaced 88 games ago on great postseason expectations resumes tonight with the Orioles searching for motivation merely to achieve respectability. Where they find it remains less clear than the factors that have stigmatized them, rightly or wrongly, as underachieving symbols of a money-based plan gone wrong.
After finishing the first half in a free fall, the fourth-place Orioles begin a four-game series against the wild-card contending Boston Red Sox at 38-50. They have lost 11 of 12 and stand 30 games down in the loss column to the New York Yankees. They haven't won a road game since June 12 in Toronto, going 0-10 since. Their next opportunity comes in Texas on Wednesday.
Talk of remaking the game's most veteran roster has replaced any fanciful discussion of playoffs. Within the next three weeks, the $69 million Orioles intend to auction many of their 11 pending free agents, including All-Star Game MVP Roberto Alomar, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, right fielders Joe Carter and Eric Davis, and possibly reliever Jesse Orosco. Trying to win within such an environment will present new challenges to a team without a four-game winning streak since April and 28-48 since a misleading 12-game start.
"You could've, would've, should've, could've all you want. The fact of the matter is: we are where we are," said left fielder B. J. Surhoff. "There's no changing it right now."
The remainder of the season will focus upon shifting personnel within the clubhouse and the front office. Discussions have reopened with Palmeiro's agent but must soon reach critical mass for him to avoid the expected exodus. General manager Pat Gillick, expected to leave the organization after this season, has anointed assistant GM Kevin Malone as his preferred successor.
Asked what beyond a personal sense of professionalism remains as a motivator, Surhoff replied, "You've said the only thing there is."
"We're not going to quit and lie down. There are still a lot of games to be played," said center fielder Brady Anderson. "The situation is awful. But so what? We have to keep going out there."
The Orioles ended the first half as if looking for a place to fall. Except for Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson, the injury-depleted starting rotation was predictably ineffective. However, the most protracted offensive skid of the season compounded matters. The power-based Orioles scored 35 runs during their 1-11 slide, failing to hit more than one home run in any game. A lack of organizational depth led the club to keep Davis and designated hitter Harold Baines active despite injuries that markedly affected their ability to produce.
How are these for goals? The Orioles need to finish at least 35-39 to avoid their first 90-loss season since 1991. A repeat of their last 74 games will land them perilously close to their first 100-loss season since 1988, which began 0-21.
"You play because you like to compete," added Surhoff, who remains unsigned beyond this season. "A lot of guys here are playing for jobs. It's been shown you can turn around a club in a year. There's addition and subtraction here and there. In the last 10 years we've seen teams go from last to first."
Any short-term turnaround will likely hinge on pitching. Scott Kamieniecki, disabled since May 23 because of a herniated disk, might return before month's end. He begins a series of three rehab starts tonight with Double-A Bowie. Jimmy Key's comeback from an inflamed left rotator cuff is less certain. He has yet to receive medical clearance to resume pitching. An interim goal is to acquire a starting pitcher during the upcoming frenzy of trades. That, too, appears a reach.
The starters have failed to clear at least six innings in 20 of the last 33 games. Manager Ray Miller has consistently bemoaned an inability to compensate for the losses as Pete Smith has been moved to the bullpen and Doug Johns also subtracted from the rotation despite a string of competent outings. Nerio Rodriguez joins fellow rookie Sidney Ponson in the rotation.
Some within a shellshocked clubhouse believe citing the starting pitching is a simplistic explanation to a more far-reaching problem.
"I know who's pointing fingers [at starting pitching]. That's [garbage]," said Erickson. "There's a reason we have a high ERA. Pitching and defense go hand-in-hand. Having the fewest errors in the league that's misleading. You don't get an error on a ball you don't get to. It looks different on paper. Those are stats. It doesn't mean that's reality. Sidney [Ponson] pitched a great game his last start but gave up two earned runs on a routine ball to second that was mishandled."
Erickson says "it looks different on paper." With 74 games to go, these Orioles have given teeth to the cliche.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Bret Saberhagen (10-5, 4.78) vs. O's Mike Mussina (6-5, 3.63)
Tickets: About 200 remain
Pub Date: 7/09/98