O's can streak with best, worst

Roller-coaster ride of 6 wins, then 9 losses reflects 3-season trend

June 27, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - The riddle, now 3 years old and increasingly irritating, colors a season quickly dragging the Orioles to a familiar place where they would rather not return.

Why can the Orioles go up and down but never settle in between?

Not only are the Orioles baseball's oldest team. They have demonstrated since their 1997 American League East title that they are also the game's most schizophrenic, capable of encouraging runs of success followed by stretches of profound frustration.

The Orioles enter tonight's series opener against the Boston Red Sox lugging a nine-game losing streak that has dropped them into a last-place tie. Another loss tonight behind Mike Mussina would give them only the ninth double-digit losing streak in club history but their third in three seasons.

No team is defined by streaks more than the Orioles. Already this season they have experienced winning streaks of five, six, four and six games and losing runs of four, four, seven, four, five and nine games.

"I don't have a theory. My approach has always been to take one game at a time," third baseman Cal Ripken said. "What happened yesterday can't affect your ability to go out and play today."

Former manager Ray Miller theorized that advanced age made his team vulnerable to wild swings. His 1998 team crashed the wild- card race with second-half streaks of eight, five and five wins only to collapse in a 10-game losing streak following a disastrous August clubhouse meeting in Chicago.

Manager Mike Hargrove waves off theories as uninvited fortune- telling.

"I don't have a reason for it. It's perplexing," he said. "There are times when this team has played very well."

Those times typically have come at cozy Camden Yards. Hargrove's Orioles have not won any of their past 10 road series and have won only one of 15 road games since May 30.

"They can compensate to a degree for their lack of outfield range at home," said one American League club official. "They can compensate for some mistakes there with home runs. But put them in a big park and they look defenseless."

"We play some good games on the road, but something always seems to happen," catcher Charles Johnson said. "It's hard to figure out."

Good teams are usually described as those that can maintain consistency, never being dragged under by weeklong losing streaks while finding ways to maximize their positive runs. Nowhere is consistency valued more than in the Orioles' veteran clubhouse, but few places have found it more elusive. This is much the same team, after all, that last season built five winning streaks of five games or more only to be undone by four losing streaks of at least six games.

Question: How could a team capable of winning 10 of 11, as the Orioles did last June 9-22, then lose its next 10 games for only the eighth time in franchise history?

Answer: Uncertain but possibly found within the team's recent struggle within the AL East and on the road, symptoms of a bullpen under almost constant renovation since 1997 and a graying team ill- suited for artificial turf.

"I've stayed awake nights thinking about it," said first baseman Will Clark, insistent that he never rode such a roller coaster with the San Francisco Giants or Texas Rangers. "I can't give you an explanation because I don't have one."

Part of the team's frustrating personality in the past three years is its ability to tease itself, its front office and a segment of its fan base with bursts of inspired play. The American League's longest winning streak last year didn't belong to the New York Yankees or Red Sox; it belonged to the Orioles, who won 13 straight in September after falling 15 games below .500 and 23 games out of first place.

Downturns often have coincided with division competition. Of last year's four longest losing streaks, two were entirely within the AL East - a six-game skid against Toronto and Tampa Bay to conclude a 1-8 road trip that began in New York, and the 10-game wipeout against Boston, New York and Toronto.

The Orioles' staggering string of 14 consecutive losses to the Blue Jays at SkyDome has become a regular component of a protracted slide. Four of their past five trips to Toronto have coincided with at least a six-game losing streak.

Pitching has been the common thread running through the Orioles' inconsistencies. The Orioles own a 4.67 home ERA compared to 6.41 on the road. During the six- game winning streak that invigorated their last homestand, Orioles pitching compiled a 3.33 ERA. During the current losing streak that followed, the Orioles have pitched to an 8.21 ERA and surrendered innings of four runs or more in eight games.

"I think every championship team is in the top three or four in pitching. That's not a mystery," Ripken said. "It's the nature of the game that pitching determines the game. When you go on a run it's behind pitching. Good pitching beats good hitting all the time."

"Pitching is what drives a streak, good or bad," Clark said. "It's almost impossible to go on a tear if your pitching isn't sharp."

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