At quarter pole, O's move up from 2000

Inside the Orioles

Numbers much the same, but youth brightens future


May 20, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

What a difference one game makes.

Based on record, there is little appreciable difference between the first quarter's 18-22 Orioles of this season and their 17-23 predecessors. But separate reality from the organization spin doctors and the first 40 games - considered by many baseball people as a schedule's first legitimate milepost - and a younger, more aggressive, more competent pitching team comes into focus.

"We had a veteran club last year at this time with no team speed at all. We really didn't have a lot of high-average hitters. We had a lot of power and were a little lacking defensively because of our speed and our age," manager Mike Hargrove said. "As you watched last year's club, it played hard but you knew you couldn't project that club beyond last year. With this club, it's all about projection."

Translation: Hargrove much prefers watching this year's product than last year's.(The fan base so far disagrees. Home attendance through the first 19 dates plummeted 132,649, an average of 6,980 per game.)

One game's difference may seem inconsequential but within the context of this team's renovation, it says much both competitively and stylistically.

The Orioles now win with pitching instead of losing with it. They are the antithesis of a roster that bullied its way to the AL wild-card in 1996 and are only distant relatives to the one that scored at least four runs in 29 of its first 40 games last season (only to go 14-15 in those games).

"Given a choice of the two ballclubs, I would much rather have this ballclub at this point than have that club at that point," Hargrove said.

Through 40 games the Orioles batted .237 with 26 home runs and 166 runs this season compared to .277 with 48 home runs and 214 runs last season - a difference of about two hits and more than one run a game. A year ago, Mike Bordick, Charles Johnson, Cal Ripken, Brady Anderson, Albert Belle and Delino DeShields had each amassed more than 20 RBIs by Game No. 40.

These Orioles were led by Jeff Conine's 17 RBIs.

"Last year we waited for a bloop and a blast," Hargrove said. "That's a tough way to play and it's not a real exciting way to play if you're not swinging the bats real well."

This team's lineup is as liquid as last year's was set. Hargrove employed 37 different looks through 40 games and as recently as Friday showed a previously unseen permutation that had both Anderson and DeShields on the bench against a left-handed starter.

Last season's Orioles reached the quarter-pole overly reliant on a power attack, unable to support their top three starting pitchers and terrified of a holdover bullpen that needed only 40 games to blow 11 saves while compiling a 7.05 ERA. That bullpen's first 111 innings produced 25 home runs and a staggering 202 base runners. Not coincidentally, it suffered 10 of the team's first 23 losses. That the Orioles led the AL in complete games was more a necessity than a compliment.

The Orioles lost 12 times in 1999 when leading after seven innings. It took them only 40 games last season to blow six games when leading after seven. This year, they were 13-0 when leading after seven innings through Wednesday's Game No. 40.

A reshaped bullpen that at one time featured four rookies passed 40 games with a 9-5 mark, a 3.78 ERA and 10 saves in 15 opportunities - not dominant but hardly embarrassing.

Youth has actually transformed the Orioles into a more known quantity: They don't score much, rarely play for the big, big inning, usually catch the ball and challenge opposing defenses when close. Through 40 games last season, the pitching-poor Orioles already had compiled four- and six-game win streaks and losing skids of four, four and seven games. They were two games into a third four-game slide when they played their 40th game in Arlington, a bullpen-induced 8-7 loss that left them in a 2-13 funk.

"I don't think I've seen anything like this in all my years," lamented Hargrove at the time.

Largely because the bullpen has protected what it's been given, this season's less prolific scoring team continues to avoid wild swings. The Orioles have endured a six-game losing streak while constructing a pair of three-game win streaks (something the Atlanta Braves have failed to accomplish).

Hargrove's decision to dislodge rookie Ryan Kohlmeier as closer has as much to do with his staff's flexibility and willingness to adapt than to Kohlmeier's struggles. Never considered a dominant arm who projects as a 30-save man, Kohlmeier fits within a mix-and-match bullpen. The same could be said of his veteran predecessor, Mike Timlin; however, a four-year, $16 million contract long prevented the organization from stating the obvious with Timlin.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.