ARLINGTON, Texas - With a veteran clubhouse, what the Orioles have experienced for the past three weeks would be called a slump.
With an inexperienced team celebrated for its first-half overachievement, a lost July may be nothing less than a hobbled bunch seeking its level.
A mix of shoddy defense and bullpen intrigue combined last night to deal the Orioles a doubleheader loss to the Texas Rangers and drop their record to 42-59, second-worst in the American League.
Two unearned runs permitted by three errors and 6 2/3 innings from a spindly right-hander christened Justin Duchscherer 24 years ago were enough for the Texas Rangers to leave the Orioles with a 6-5 loss in the first game of yesterday's doubleheader at The Ballpark in Arlington.
Duchscherer (1-0) contained the Orioles on six hits in his major-league debut while Orioles emergency starter John Parrish (0-1) became the latest Orioles starter to pay for the sins of his defense.
An unseen bullpen alignment failed behind Calvin Maduro in the second game as the Rangers rallied for five runs in the seventh and eighth innings for a 5-2 win before 37,820.
Trapped by one of the worst spirals in franchise history, the Orioles turned a potential feel-good ending into another baffling downer after Maduro lost an opportunity for his first win since May 9, 1997, during a two-run seventh inning. Unable to hold onto a 2-0 lead, Maduro left a tie game to watch surprise reliever Jose Mercedes (4-12) ignite a three-run eighth that served only to further complicate his trade value.
Third baseman Mike Lamb gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead on a one-out double to score Michael Young, took third on a play at the plate, then scored on Alex Rodriguez's sacrifice fly. Pitching two days after a three-inning start, Mercedes then surrendered a home run to former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to finalize the Orioles' 13th loss this season when leading after six innings.
The curious bullpen alignment also featured Willis Roberts getting the last out of the seventh inning. Mike Trombley never stirred during the collapse.
Held to fewer than six runs for the 18th time in 19 games, the Orioles are 1-8 this month in games decided by one or two runs.
The trend has run long and deep enough for manager Mike Hargrove to look past pitch counts, slumps and slugging percentages for explanations. He need only look to the disabled list to locate the missing backbone of a transitional team.
"I think leadership on the field is an issue. Leadership may not be the right word. Stability certainly is," Hargrove said.
The Orioles received home runs from Chris Richard, Brook Fordyce and Brian Roberts in the opener, but couldn't overcome a disastrous first inning that included Roberts' double error at shortstop and Parrish's two walks, which fed a five-run rally. The Orioles lost the first two games of this four-game series by one run as punishment for allowing five unearned runs. Their 52 unearned runs this season are fewer than only expansion-like Tampa Bay.
"You've got to take them as you get them. Errors are going to come," said Parrish, beaten by two unearned runs. "I had to back that up and make sure I got six strong innings."
For his wisdom and his six-inning performance, Parrish was optioned after the game to make room for reliever Ryan Kohlmeier.
Inconsistent offense and consistently poor defense have shackled the Orioles with a 4-17 July that threatens to become one of the worst months in franchise history.
They need another win in their last five games to avoid the second-lowest total for a month in the team's 47-year history.
Losers of 17 of their last 20, the Orioles tumbled to 42-59, three more games below .500 than they finished last season. The drought has been typified by porous defense, choppy offense and a lineup increasingly devoid of stabilizing influences. Maduro's start in the second game meant the Orioles countered the American League's most powerful lineup with two arms who had combined for nothing more than 18 major-league relief appearances this year.
Fallow periods have become a summer rite for the Orioles. However, this time less of a veteran safety net exists to suggest an eventual, albeit tardy turnaround.
The Orioles began 1999 with a 5-14 swoon and later destroyed any chance of resurrecting playoff hopes with a 2-14 slump. Last season saw them endure a 2-15 span in May that dropped them from a half-game out of first place to fourth place and nine games out. A nine-game losing streak followed in June, cementing the decision to purge the clubhouse a month later.
This month's collapse has coincided with the extended loss of shortstop Mike Bordick and Opening Day pitcher Pat Hentgen as well as the recent absence of first baseman David Segui. The Orioles have fallen from among the best-fielding teams in the league to the second-worst. Of their 84 errors through 100 games, 30 have come in this month's 20 games. Roberts' first-inning gaffe left him with 11 of those 30 errors.