The Orioles are rebuilding. The Orioles are in transition. The Orioles are turning to youth.
That is all true, but it is about time that the Orioles turned on a fastball or two. Their offensive ineptitude is beginning to transcend their low expectations, and the frustration is starting to show.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays ace Albie Lopez took full advantage last night, dispatching the Orioles in record time to record a three-hit 2-0 victory before a subdued crowd of 34,656 at Camden Yards. All the Orioles could do was swing futilely and argue with home plate umpire Mike Everitt over the width of the new strike zone.
And Lopez wasn't the only guy to throw an impressive game. Orioles starter Pat Hentgen also threw a complete-game three-hitter, the two starters combining to finish the game in just 2 hours, 5 minutes -- the shortest road game ever played by the expansion Devil Rays.
Hentgen threw one bad pitch and Greg Vaughn launched a two-run home run into the left-center-field bleachers in the seventh inning. Since the punchless Orioles have averaged just a shade more than two runs a game through the first 10 games of the regular season, that turned out to be a pretty big mistake.
Nobody's perfect, and you almost have to be to win with so little offensive help.
It was the third time in a row that Hentgen has pitched at least eight innings and given up two runs or fewer, but he has yet to record his first regular-season victory since signing a two-year free-agent contract with the Orioles last winter. He could be forgiven for cursing the fates -- or decrying the same kind of run support that helped Mike Mussina choose to jump to the New York Yankees -- but instead played the good soldier and stood by his teammates.
"It's a long season," he said. "We pick each other up, that's what it's all about -- being a team. You just go out there and battle and try to keep your team in the game, and I think I did that tonight. Unfortunately, the other guy pitched better than I did tonight."
Of course, the way the Orioles have been swinging the bat through the first two weeks of the season, it's difficult to tell in any given game whether it is the good pitching or the shaky hitting that is carrying the day.
Clearly, the frustration is beginning show. Rookie Jay Gibbons went nose-to-nose with Everitt after he was called out on a borderline pitch in the sixth inning and Cal Ripken exchanged sharp words with the home plate umpire after he was called out on an inside pitch to end the game.
"I would think it's frustrating for everybody," said manager Mike Hargrove, "especially our hitters. This guy [Hentgen] is going out there and doing his job and we can't help him out."
Lopez retired the first 10 Orioles he faced and carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning before Ripken broke it up with a sharp two-out single to left field that gave him the 5,000th total base of his career.
"He threw great," said Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson. "He's always had good stuff. He has a good fastball that he can throw up in the zone. He threw some good sliders. He was never really in trouble."
Lopez has been one of the game's most effective pitchers through the early weeks of the season. He improved his record to 2-1 with a 1.50 ERA, but no one is going to mistake him for Pedro Martinez. The Orioles are, simply, living down to their limited offensive potential after a spring of exciting exhibition baseball-inflated expectations.
Nobody could fault them for managing only a handful of hits against Martinez on Opening Day. That could happen to anyone - and usually does. They could even chalk up the Hideo Nomo no-no to a hot pitcher and a giant strike zone. But little has happened since then to create hope for a better offensive future.
The club has scored as many as five runs only once in the first 10 games of the season, and -- despite a solid overall performance by the pitching staff -- has yet to support a starter well enough to get the rotation its first victory of the year.
"We've got good hitters and they're going to hit," said Hargrove. "We have to go out and do that, but right now it's not working. ... Chris Richard hit last year in the big leagues. Jerry Hairston showed he can hit in the big leagues. Obviously, we have some unknown in Jay Gibbons and some others, but these guys have track records. With young people, you've got to have patience and allow them room to adjust and develop.
"It makes it hard because some of our veteran hitters aren't hitting the way they can either, but we're not running guys out there who can't hit."
Hentgen has given up a total of five runs and 13 hits over 25 2/3 innings in his three Orioles starts. His ERA is an impressive 1.75, but he's got to wonder what he has to do to get a victory in this town.
Last year in St. Louis, Hentgen won 15 games in spite of a 4.72 ERA. This season, he is finding out that some things do even out.