The Orioles' stated goal for the next three weeks is to learn as much about as many of their younger talents as possible. At the same time, they perform the ugly math of 100 losses.
Trapped by their longest losing streak of the season and their worst 15-game stretch in 13 years, the Orioles enter tonight's opener of a three-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays at 55-87. They require at least an 8-12 finish to avoid their first 100-loss season since 1988. Their earlier goal of sidestepping 90 losses that seemed so promising at the All-Star break has been obliterated by injuries and a major league-worst 15-40 (.273) second half.
Manager Mike Hargrove urged introspection during a post-game clubhouse meeting Sunday and third baseman Cal Ripken briefly took the floor to reinforce a message of perseverance. Ripken later admitted similarities between this season and 1988.
"It's fair to compare all rebuilding situations," Ripken said. "You have to show patience in the people you put out there."
"I think any time you fight your way through a tough time and stay true to who you are, when you get through it you're a better person, a better player and a better team for it," said Hargrove, who experienced similar times with the Cleveland Indians from 1991-93. "It's no fun when you're doing it. The process itself stinks. It's like passing steel through fire. As it passes through flames it becomes harder and tougher."
The club has kept true to its theme of development despite the approach of bleak history. Rookies Rick Bauer, Josh Towers and John Bale reside in a starting rotation where Jason Johnson's 75 major-league starts make him its senior member. Pending free-agent pitchers Jose Mercedes and Alan Mills learned during the road trip that their roles have been at least altered and likely eliminated. However, the most depressing indictment is that the ability to expand their clubhouse has done nothing to alleviate the Orioles' season-long lack of bench.
"Nobody wants to lose 100 games. I don't. The players don't," Hargrove said. "But we're also in a situation where we're trying to find out things about our young people. And that doesn't mean we will lose 100 games. These guys are still busting it every day. But we also have to look at the big picture."
The small one isn't pretty.
The Orioles haven't won a nine-inning game since Aug. 23. The only interruption to their losing skid was a 3-0 win over the Seattle Mariners Aug. 31 that was shortened one out by rain.
They have been held to five hits or fewer in 11 of their past 15 games while suffering five shutouts. (They had been shut out six times in their previous 127 games.) Last in the American League with a .249 batting average, they have scored in only 15 of their past 132 innings.
Second baseman Jerry Hairston classified the team's recent play as "embarrassing" Saturday night while others see a sense of inevitability creeping into a once-defiant clubhouse.
Hargrove and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift took every opportunity to cite the team's overachievement during the first half - at the expense of prognosticators who had projected 100 losses. Hargrove has recently remained philosophical while Thrift appears drained by the team's collapse. Thrift said Saturday he was "exhausted" by days of meetings and scouring for short-term relief. He did not return phone calls yesterday.
The recent calamity coincides with first baseman David Segui's loss to chronic left knee pain. Segui attempted a return on Friday in Seattle but lasted only 4 1/2 innings. The knee locked up while he took a pitch. He eventually grounded out, unable to jog to first base. The Orioles now concede off-season surgery is all but certain for Segui, who is in the first season of a four-year, $28 million contract.
Utility player Melvin Mora hasn't appeared since hurting his elbow on a dive at shortstop last Tuesday and is to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging.
Chris Richard played right field on Saturday despite a left shoulder so sore he couldn't throw a ball more than 120 feet. Hargrove explained afterward Richard had led him and trainers to believe tendinitis in the shoulder had eased; Richard later seemed to contradict Hargrove's assessment, insisting the club "knew what they would get" if he played.
Even Ripken's vibrant performance of July and August has been affected by "scary" lower-back pain that has limited him to two games at third base this month. Ripken managed only one hit in 17 at-bats during the team's 0-6 road trip and has seen his average fall from a season-high .276 to .254.
Ripken will likely announce tomorrow his intention to serve as honorary starter for a Sept. 23 NASCAR race in Dover, Del. The rest of his clubhouse looks seven days beyond for the finish line.
At 55-87 with 20 games left, the Orioles need to go 8-12 to avoid 100 losses. Their current .387 winning percentage would be the fourth-worst in club history. The Orioles' five worst seasons: