Futility hits 10 for O's, 4-1

Jays keep O's bats quiet as winless September drags on

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

TORONTO - Last night at SkyDome brought good news to the Orioles as they savored their longest lead in 18 days. The bad news was it lasted only 1 1/2 innings.

Graded on a sliding scale that constantly cites injuries and inexperience while downplaying an organization's flawed assessments, the Orioles again fell quietly, 4-1, to the Toronto Blue Jays last night before a Cal Ripken bobblehead night crowd of 31,303. The loss dropped them to 55-89, necessitating an 8-10 finish if the franchise is to avoid its first 100-loss season since 1988.

A winless, punchless September continued as three Blue Jays pitchers combined on a five-hitter and imprecise Orioles starter Calvin Maduro became the latest to feel the bite of a zero-tolerance offense.

At 10 games and counting, the Orioles' losing streak is their longest since they dropped 10 straight from June 23 to July 3, 1999, and is the ninth double-digit skid in team history. Few times in its existence - including its recognized low point of 1988 - has the club looked more helpless.

In last night's first inning, the Orioles took only their third lead in nine games when first baseman Jeff Conine scored Luis Matos with a two-out single off Blue Jays starter Roy Halladay (4-2). When Maduro got through the bottom of the inning without allowing a run, the Orioles had held a lead longer than at any time since Sept. 1.

Their struggles have put several projects on hold, including evaluating Willis Roberts as a future closer. The Orioles don't own a save since Aug. 23, partly because they're 1-16 in that span.

In the past month, the Orioles have constructed the worst nine-game homestand in history, been shut out five times during a 17-game span in which they have been outscored 106-29 and fallen 34 games under .500, their largest separation since 1988.

This team, however, has outdone its '88 predecessor for poor finishes: After its 0-21 start, the 1988 Orioles were 32 games below .500 over the balance of their schedule. This team is 33 games below .500 since a 10-11 start.

A lack of organizational depth, especially on offense, has been exposed since injuries subtracted Mike Bordick, Jay Gibbons and David Segui from the everyday lineup.

"We've got a lot of young guys on this team, and we're taking our lumps right now," second baseman Jerry Hairston said. "Hopefully, we'll learn from it. This ain't Triple-A ball. You shouldn't feel sorry for yourself and you shouldn't expect anyone to feel sorry for you."

Last night, manager Mike Hargrove fleshed out the bottom third of the lineup with three rookies. His No. 3 bat, Chris Richard, was a designated hitter unable to raise his left arm over his head. Left fielder Mike Kinkade made his first start since Aug. 23. The result was a career-high 11 strikeouts for Halladay and another futile attempt at reclaiming a game after trailing.

The Orioles have scored in 20 of their past 149 innings, meaning they have scored in an average of barely one inning over their past 17 games. They appear almost certain to end the season as the major leagues' only team not to sweep a three-game series.

"Things aren't nearly as bad as they seem. I remember in June being asked if we were going to make any deals at the [waiver] deadline to strengthen our chances to contend. At the time I thought to myself this was premature," said Hargrove, still able to remember his team's 40-47 first half. "I don't think our needs are any more sweeping now than they were at the beginning of the season. I think we've been able to identify those needs a little bit more. I don't think we're seeing many surprises."

Asked if he could cite players who have taken full advantage of their opportunity this season, Hargrove offered six names - all pitchers.

"There have been guys who have done a credible job," Hargrove said. "Am I disappointed in the guys who haven't? Shoot, yeah, I'm disappointed. I'm not disappointed in them. I'm disappointed for them. But that's what this year started out to be all about.

"I don't think any of us looked to lose the games we've lost. But if you look at the majority of the games we've lost, it's been one or two mistakes that have cost us. We've got to get to the point where we're deep enough to overcome those mistakes. Right now, we're having a difficult time doing that because we're pretty thin."

Conine's RBI single met their quota. As laborious as the Orioles' offense has become, it is unimaginable where it would stand without Conine, a projected spare part when the season opened and now the team's only consistent run producer.

Conine entered last night third in the American League with a .383 average with runners in scoring position. He has driven in a staggering 30 percent of total runners in scoring position.

A contender as next season's fifth starter, Maduro hasn't won since Aug. 31, a distinction that also makes him the last Orioles pitcher to gain a victory. The Orioles had scored 22 runs in his previous four starts but last night abandoned their talisman.

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