O's question: How low can you go?

July 04, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

NEW YORK -- You think it can't keep getting worse, and it does.

You think the season has hit its lowest point, the worst of the worst, and then another appears on a hazy summer evening in the Bronx.

"The most sickening thing in the world is me sitting in the dugout watching my players walk off the field," Orioles manager Ray Miller said.

It was sad, that's what it was.

Forget about the $84 million payroll, Albert Belle's Web site, owner Peter G. Angelos' buy-a-team philosophy and all the things making the Orioles harder to root for, at least in some fans' eyes.

No team deserves what happened to the Orioles yesterday at Yankee Stadium.

They'd lost nine games in a row to fall into last place in the American League East -- pathetic circumstances by any measure -- yet they responded by playing a tough, smart, winning game against the defending World Series champions.

Sidney Ponson outpitched Orlando Hernandez, Belle and Harold Baines hit back-to-back homers, B.J. Surhoff broke a tie with a clutch hit in the seventh inning and the Orioles took a deserving two-run lead into the bottom of the ninth.

Deserving, yes, on a day when Charles Johnson picked a Yankees runner off first, Surhoff threw another out at second, rookie second baseman

Jerry Hairston set up a run with a sacrifice bunt and the Orioles generally resembled a team battling for the division lead, not baseball's biggest bust.

"We played our butts off out there today," Miller said. "We made so many plays."

He's right. They did.

And then the bullpen blew it again.

That's right, the Incredible Melting Bullpen struck again, for the fourth time in five days.

You thought it couldn't keep happening, and it did.

Arthur Rhodes gave up a single and a walk, struck out Luis Sojo and grooved a pitch to Scott Brosius, the Yankees' No. 9 hitter, who pounded a three-run homer into the left-field seats to give the Yankees the win, 6-5.

Too much, that's what it was. Too much to believe, almost.

"It's all the bullpen's fault," Rhodes said with apparent sarcasm.

But there's no one else to blame on this road trip from hell.

The bullpen blew three straight games in Toronto earlier in the week, three straight games in which the final swing handed the Orioles a loss.

Then, yesterday, another.

The scene just keeps playing itself out over and over and over, like a bad dream refusing to end.

"We did winning things today," Miller said, "and there was no one to close it out."

Actually, Doug Johns pitched a scoreless eighth in the setup role and could have taken a shot at the ninth. Why take out anyone having any measure of success?

Ah, who cares? You can't blame Miller for this. His bullpen is so full of busts that he anointed Rochester call-up Gabe Molina as his new closer after yesterday's game. That's desperation.

Rhodes? Now, there's a mystery. He's a quality pitcher in a horrible slump, having been pounded in each of his last four outings. He's frustrated with Miller's handling of him, but that's no excuse for completely falling apart. He was a shell of himself yesterday. He walked Jorge Posada, a .201 hitter, and was behind in the count on each of his other three hitters.

"No one feels worse than Arthur does," Miller said, "but it's really hard on the ballclub."

Devastating, that's what it is. Because the Orioles aren't playing that badly, really. Yes, they've lost 10 in a row, but they're hustling, hitting and competing hard. Playing well enough to win now and then, or even more than that.

"If we do what we're supposed to do in the ninth [all week], we probably win at least half the [10] games," Johnson said. "It's difficult to see it happen. Everyone was out there [after the homer] going, `What's going on?' "

No one in the Orioles dugout moved as Brosius circled the bases to a shattering din. The players in the field stood at their positions, stunned, then slowly started walking toward the dugout. Cal Ripken ambled from third base toward the plate, making sure Brosius touched every base.

"It's not fun," Ripken said of the increasingly surreal losing streak. "All you can do is go back and start again tomorrow to try to make things better. I'm open to suggestions from anyone who has an idea."

The fainthearted are advised not to drag their portable televisions out to the back yard picnic for today's game against the Yankees. Who knows what might happen?

You think it can't keep getting worse, but it does.

You think you've seen the lowest of the low points, but then there's another.

"I feel for the ballclub," Miller said.

Losing games like this, in the most crushing of all fashions, over and over and over, it's appropriate to feel that way.

Say what you will about the underachieving Orioles, but this time, at least, they deserved better.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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