Orioles blue in face, spirit, with no sign of thawing

April 19, 2001|By John Eisenberg

WHEN Cleveland's Marty Cordova lined a two-out, two-strike, two-run single to right field in the top of the sixth inning last night, pushing the Indians' lead over the Orioles to 4-0 at Camden Yards, a sizable contingent of the 28,801 fans popped out of their seats and headed for the exits, the parking lot and beyond.

It was hard to blame them for the visions of car heaters dancing in their heads. The cold, blustery conditions were miserable, as bracing as any experienced in the ballpark's history. The fans deserved merit badges for bothering to come out at all, even if it was just for a few innings. Talk about winter ball.

And of course, with the Orioles needing four runs to tie at that point, the chances of witnessing a comeback were, ahem, minimal.

The club's collective batting average is down to .199 - the lowest in the American League by more than 20 points - after what ended as a 4-1 loss last night. The season total of five home runs puts the club on a pace to hit 54 all season - four more than Brady Anderson alone hit in 1996. Total output for the first two games of the Cleveland series? Two runs.

To say the Orioles aren't hitting is to say, well, that it's been a little chillier than usual. And while hotter weather is coming, hotter hitting might not show up until, well, who knows when? Veterans David Segui (.171), Delino DeShields (.106) and Brady Anderson (.148) are bound to heat up, but the overall absence of power, a classic cleanup hitter and proven bats could prove even more troubling than expected.

O's, indeed.

What to do about it? Nothing, really. Just live with it. Signing available free agent Jose Canseco would be ludicrous, defeating the purpose of everything the club is trying to do by finally giving younger players a chance. Canseco would not only be a needless distraction the moment he walked in the clubhouse door, but he also would take away at-bats from younger players who need them.

Thumbs up to Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift for taking a strong stand against Canseco when his boss, Peter Angelos, reportedly wanted the slugger after the Angels released him. There's just no reason for the Orioles to make such a move, regardless of the bargain-basement price. The Orioles just broke up a slow, old, injury-prone team, remember?

Staying the course with such a lineup might not be pretty, of course. The effect of the absence of production is obvious through the season's first 15 games: The Orioles now have almost no margin for error on a nightly basis. With little hitting on top of questionable pitching, they have to play almost a perfect game to win. That means a solid outing from the starter, no mistakes in the field, a few clutch hits and a quality bullpen seal.

It has happened often enough in the early going to give rise to the illusion that it might happen with some regularity; that the Orioles were playing for .500 when the Cleveland series started Tuesday night is a credit to the able managing of Mike Hargrove, a surprisingly solid bullpen and a defense that held up until the past two games.

But the reality is it's borderline miraculous the Orioles have won even six of 15 games. Their starting rotation is a 1-8. Their batting average is by far the lowest in the majors. Their cleanup hitter is the backup catcher, a guy they're trying to trade. They've won one of five series and been outscored by 25 runs. That sounds more like a 3-12 team, doesn't it?

But whatever they were, they're now three games under .500 for the first time, with a long trip looming after today's finale with the Indians, and you can start to sense the Orioles beginning to find their level.

For the second straight game, they blew an early scoring chance when third baseman Mike Kinkade, subbing for Cal Ripken, grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the bottom of the second. Then Kinkade and shortstop Mike Bordick watched a routine infield popup fall to the ground with two out in the third.

The required perfect game? Not on this night.

"It's a play we've worked on a million times," Hargrove said of the botched popup. "The pitcher is trained to call out the name of the player who should make the catch and [Orioles starter] Pat [Hentgen] yelled out `Mike!' And both guys [who could make the play] were Mike."

Omar Vizquel followed with a single that scored two runs, and that was all Cleveland starter Bartolo Colon needed with his 97-mph fastball blowing the Orioles away. Indians closer Bob Wickman was shaky enough to enable the Orioles to bring the tying run to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but Jerry Hairston struck out.

"We swung the bats aggressively against a good pitcher, but it just didn't happen for us," Hargrove said. "We have, what, 146 of these things to go [147, actually]. It's going to turn for us."

But when?

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