Mediocrity isn't phase for Orioles

April 25, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Some numbers to ponder while waiting for the Orioles to pull out of this "slump":

They have lost 24 of their last 30 games and 35 of their last 49 dating to last season.

They're five games under .500 since sweeping the Braves 277 games ago in June 1997.

Yes, that's a period that has included two front office regimes, numerous personnel moves and several blueprints, but still, the pattern is impossible to miss.

You can keep calling their 4-13 start a slump or a phase or whatever, but the reality is the Orioles aren't a winning ballclub and haven't been for some time.

If you're expecting them to wake up any day now and turn themselves around, you'd better put on a pot of coffee and find a good book to read. It could be awhile.

All they had to do to achieve the ultra-modest goal of winning back-to-back games for the first time this season was beat one of their long-relief rejects, Oakland's Mike Oquist, yesterday at Camden Yards. But even that was asking too much.

Oquist, owner of 17 career wins before yesterday, shut them out for 5 2/3 innings and earned the win in Oakland's 3-0 victory.

"He's the kind of guy we should have gotten [to]," Orioles manager Ray Miller said of Oquist. "But we didn't get the hits."

They had chances early, loading the bases in the first inning and pushing a runner to third with one out in the second, but they failed in the clutch and barely sounded a peep after that. At one point, Oquist recorded 11 straight outs on flies and pop-ups.

For those scoring at home, the Orioles have now lost shutout games in the past week to that noted trio of starters, Roy Halladay, Tony Saunders and Oquist.

The week has also included Mike Mussina's 10-run outing against the Devil Rays, Saunders' near no-hitter Thursday night and an overall 1-4 record against two no-hope teams (Oakland and Tampa Bay) with a combined payroll of $56 million -- some $28 million less than the Orioles' $84 million whopper.

It's almost as if they're working on their own version of a David Letterman Top 10. Subject: Ridiculous Ways For an Overpaid Ballclub To Lose a Game.

To say the Orioles aren't getting their money's worth is a vast understatement. If they had buyers' protection insurance, they'd probably qualify for a refund of all those millions they've invested in salaries.

But please, let's stop dismissing it as a phase or a slump or whatever, OK? The Orioles are working on almost two straight seasons of mediocre baseball.

After finishing miles from the playoff race last season and running up the worst record in the major leagues in the first three weeks of this season, they're officially a non-contender until proven otherwise.

This party-line notion of them overcoming their poor start against "bad" teams in the next few weeks is laughable. No team is worse than the Orioles right now, not even the Expos, Marlins or any of the teams that aren't even trying to win, for crying out loud.

It shouldn't be that way, of course. The Orioles have more proven, quality players than the Oaklands and Tampa Bays. But unlike the old-school Orioles, who were better than the sum of their parts, these Orioles are worse than the sum of their parts.

When they hit, they don't pitch. When they pitch, they don't hit. Their fundamentals are shaky, their defense even shakier. And they're 0-10 when trailing after six innings, so they aren't exactly the Cardiac O's.

Yes, they do have some excuses in play right now. Will Clark's absence is a terrible, two-fold blow for the offense. Not only is Clark's production missed, but there's no protection for Albert Belle, who isn't seeing many hittable pitches, minimizing his impact.

And the starting pitching has been so terrible that you know it's not going to stay this bad. Scott Erickson's strong performance yesterday was a step in the right direction, as was Juan Guzman's the night before and Sidney Ponson's on Thursday night.

"[Quality starts] like that give you a chance to win," Charles Johnson said. "It's been good to see that over the last three games."

Get the starting pitching going, get Clark back and get Belle up to speed, and this is a better team than 4-13.

But a lot better?

At this point, you can't say that.

Miller is now 34 games under .500 as a manager in his stops in Minnesota and here, so you can't count on him to make a difference.

That's right, he's 34 games under .500 in less than three seasons. Is anyone out there counting?

Not that what's happening now is all his fault, or even somewhat. The notion that $84 million was bound to buy a contender was, it seems, misguided this time. All it has bought is a set of overly great expectations for a flawed team, and a soft chorus of boos heard after the last out yesterday.

Now it's up to fill-in starter Rocky Coppinger to win today and keep the Orioles from losing their 10th straight series dating to last season.

Some "slump."

Orioles today

Opponent: Oakland Athletics

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 1: 35 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Athletics' Kenny Rogers (0-2, 5.94) vs. O's Rocky Coppinger (0-0, 0.00)

Tickets: 2,000 remain

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