O's hope for change from misspent first quarter

Inside the Orioles

Bizarre 7 weeks point to better times, especially if pitching comes around

May 23, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles reached the season's quarter pole Thursday night with the image of their most heads-up player forgetting the outs count during a critical eighth-inning rally, their most feared hitter carrying one double and their most durable pitcher with one victory. Manager Ray Miller promised that if B. J. Surhoff played another 20 years he would never run into a double play on a foul pop. It will likely be another 20 years before this franchise musters a more bizarre opening act.

Given a 14-26 start that matched the third-worst in franchise history, Miller and his underachieving team can only hope the schedule's first seven weeks are a mirage instead of a mirror for the rest of the year.

Recent history insists 40 games represents a solid barometer. Conversely, the failure by many individuals to approach their career form suggests improvement, perhaps substantial.

The Orioles exited Thursday's game hitting .267 with 52 home runs and 214 runs scored, an average of 5.35 runs per game. Their average put them between the New York Yankees (.270) and Chicago White Sox (.265), both second-place teams. They had scored 13 more runs than the Boston Red Sox and hit only two fewer home runs than the Texas Rangers.

Thanks to the league's allergic reaction to cleanup hitter Albert Belle, they also led the league in walks. Miller rightly points out that simply a competent pitching performance to date would have his club at .500 or better. Instead, the Orioles entered the weekend 10-8 when scoring six runs or more, 12-13 when scoring five or better. By comparison, the Atlanta Braves were 19-0 when scoring at least five runs.

"We're scoring more runs than the Yankees so we must be doing something right," said Miller. "On the last trip and before the last trip I'm seeing improvement from the rotation, and that excites me."

Asked whether 40 games represent a leading indicator for a season, Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer said wryly, "I would hope not."

Offered Rangers manager Johnny Oates: "You can start finding out your strengths and weaknesses. That's not going to tell you what you're going to do over the next 120 games, but it can tell you where you need to improve."

The Orioles' early problems have been several but pitching remains the most obvious. Their 5.93 ERA ranked them ahead of only the Seattle Mariners slo-pitch softball team and 1.69 behind league-leading Boston. The staff was allowing an average 1.51 runners per inning. A delicate bullpen appeared in 39 of the 40 games, surrendering runs in 29.

No manager, including Miller, will admit to 40 games telling him where he will be Oct. 1. But for last year's Orioles, who arrived 20-20, it was an ominous indicator.

Mike Mussina was struck by Sandy Alomar's line drive in Game 39; Jimmy Key went on the disabled list after Game 45 with a frayed rotator cuff and Scott Kamieniecki followed after Game 47, headed for eventual disk surgery. Predictably, the Orioles finished the first half with a 19-32 swoon and never honestly factored in the playoff chase. They were 8 1/2 games off the division lead after 40 games last year compared to nine games out on Thursday. But if for no other reason than health, this year's Orioles have greater reason for optimism than their predecessors.

"Certainly things have to improve," said Mussina, "if for no other reason than they can't possibly get worse or stay the same."

Through 40 games the Orioles were on a 57-win pace, unfathomable for a team considered a playoff contender and that last season produced a 79-83 mark despite a decimated starting rotation and rampant free-agent intrigue. However, last year's club was a virtual duplicate of the previous season's. This year has been complicated by massive turnover, a slow-starting rotation and the predictable aftershocks that have forced the bullpen to again wonder about roles.

"You solve the rotation's problems and you solve a lot of this team's problems," Mussina promised. "Starting pitching affects everything."

In 1997, the Orioles jumped out 27-13 (.675) and finished 98-64 (.605). To borrow from then-manager Davey Johnson's vocabulary, that team simply "waffled" opponents, outhitting them after 40 games by more than 50 points, outscoring them by more than 70 runs and outpitching them by more than 1.5 earned runs per game. It didn't lose three consecutive games until June 28.

Gravity eventually captured the '97 club. But its three-game lead after 40 games on May 17 ended as two games on Sept. 28.

"I think by now it's apparent what needs to be addressed," said pitcher Scott Erickson, who labored in April and brings a 1-5 record into his 10th start of the season Tuesday. "For me, personally, I was so out of whack mechanically when the season started, April was more like spring training. I would think things would improve from here on in."

For good teams or bad, Palmer insists a short memory is good. No memory is best of all.

"You almost have to take a Zen approach," says Palmer. "You can't think about what's happened or what's ahead of you. Everything is about now. That's especially hard for a pitcher if he's started the season 2-6 or a hitter who's had a lousy month. But it's the approach you have to take. The only thing that matters is what you can do to win the game today."

According to Mussina, lessons are free to anyone listening.

"This should tell you that the five most important people on your team are your starting pitchers," Mussina said. "You would've thought we would have learned that last year."

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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