After 40 winks, O's season in full slumber

Inside the Orioles

17-23 start is better than last year's, but 15-10 dreams dashed

May 21, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas - Baseball people usually agree that 40 games represents a fair enough sampling of a team's capabilities, its weaknesses and its potential in order to draw conclusions.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove offered the number several weeks ago.

Now he'd like it back.

As the Orioles completed the season's first quarter with Thursday's crushing 8-7 loss to the Texas Rangers, they further confirmed an impression that this year's team shares more similarities than differences with its78-84 predecessor. Able to leave spring training trusting a remade bullpen while confident Hargrove's touch could bring together a veteran clubhouse, the Orioles have seen their 15-10 start morph into a17-23 spiral defined by porous relief pitching, limited defense, lack of competitiveness within their division and a slow-starting rotation.

"I've got to believe we weren't as good as we showed early on, but I surely don't think we're as bad as what we're showing now," Hargrove said. "I think we're somewhere in the middle with the tendency to be on the good side."

The Orioles found themselves with a three-game improvement over last season's catastrophic 14-26 start but almost identical in relation to the AL East lead and the wild card.

These Orioles scored the identical number of runs as in last year's first 40 games, hit four fewer home runs, stole 10 more bases and stranded 50 fewer runners. They batted .276 compared to .267 and averaged nearly 5.5 runs per game despite an obvious lack of team speed.

Shortstop Mike Bordick produced eight home runs and a team-high 35 RBIs compared to one homer and 13 RBIs in the same span last season. Again healthy, second baseman Delino DeShields more than doubled his RBI production from nine to 21 while leading the team in hitting (.333).

Cal Ripken avoided the disabled list, and his at-bats and production more than doubled to seven home runs and 24 RBIs. For a second consecutive season, Will Clark hit .367 or better in 60 at-bats or fewer before going on the disabled list.

Typically the most consistent hitters, designated hitter Harold Baines and left fielder B.J. Surhoff, have suffered the most dramatic declines. Baines, 41, had 17 fewer RBIs than at the same point last season. Surhoff had tumbled into one of the darkest funks of his14-year career by ending the quarter in a 12-for-86 slide that included only two hits in his last nine games.

Instead of hitting .351 with 25 RBIs, as he did in the first 40 games last season, the Orioles' No.3 hitter was scuffling at .239 with 17 RBIs. Combined with another sluggish start by cleanup hitter Albert Belle (.273, five home runs, 24 RBIs), the middle of the lineup has been less productive than the bottom.

The Orioles didn't believe their pitching could get worse than last season's start, but they've been proved wrong. A 6.06 ERA left them last in the league while dealing with the game's worst strikeout-walk ratio. No AL staff had walked more and only one had struck out fewer. Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson had four wins total compared to 10 last season and the rotation did last season's dubious distinction of 13 consecutive starts without a win one better, going 14 between Mussina's on April 29 and Erickson's on May 16.

Last year, general manager Frank Wren was vilified within the organization for hastily constructing a bullpen that compiled a 5.54 ERA after being overused in April.

This season - with only one holdover from 1999's Opening Day bullpen - Orioles relievers suffered from a staggering 7.05 ERA and a league-high 11 blown saves through 40 games. Even worse, the Orioles lack maneuverability; they are locked into multi-year contracts with four relievers, three of them acquired since Wren's October ouster, and have eaten Tim Worrell's $700,000 salary.

Mike Trombley signed a three-year, $7.75 million contract last November to serve as setup man for closer Mike Timlin. But for a variety of reasons Trombley didn't record his first "hold" until Wednesday night's 8-7 loss to the Anaheim Angels. He and Timlin had surrendered10 home runs in a combined 27 innings. Promising rookie B.J. Ryan and long reliever Jose Mercedes had walked 32 against 25 strikeouts.

Unfailingly positive, even Hargrove has wondered aloud when the Orioles last survived a game without allowing a home run (May 6) or what else can be tried with the same group.

"I don't think I've ever seen anything like this in all of my years," Hargrove said after Thursday's collapse, which featured a six-run sixth inning one night after the Orioles were unable to hang onto three three-run leads.

The Orioles lost 12 games last year - or one of every seven losses - when leading after seven innings. They did so six times in this season's first 40 games - or more than once every four losses. Six times they've lost leads of three runs or more after the fifth inning while Hargrove admits he is out of new permutations for the retooled but still ineffective group.

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