Youth, patience mixing in, O's glass appears half-full

Strong 'pen, young arms, `total team concept' help dissolve nasty 4-11 start

Analysis

May 12, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove keeps cautioning everyone to wait before making any assessments about how good this year's team can be. He says it'll take 40 to 50 games before he really knows himself.

But with the team past the 35-game mark, we figured what the heck? This year's club has been better than a lot of people thought, and provided it can keep healthy - after some disturbing signs this past week - owner Peter Angelos' stated goal of finishing at least .500 appears surprisingly within reach.

Perhaps more importantly, there have been some encouraging signs in the team's plan to use this season as a steppingstone to future success.

The bullpen, which features 23-year-old closer Jorge Julio and three setup men under age 27 - Rick Bauer, Willis Roberts and B.J. Ryan - has been one of the best in the American League. It entered yesterday with a 6-2 record, 3.73 ERA and nine saves in 11 opportunities. Only the Twins, Mariners and Yankees had bullpens with better numbers.

Starting pitchers Rodrigo Lopez and Sidney Ponson, age 26 and 25, respectively, are 6-0 with a 2.52 ERA in their past seven starts combined.

Catcher Geronimo Gil, 26, and right fielder Jay Gibbons, 25, look like bona fide everyday players. They entered yesterday batting a combined .274 with 14 home runs and 29 RBIs.

"I think there are a lot of players on the team that have a very high upside," said Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president of baseball operations. "No one knows how to forecast or predict that. Only time will tell. ... Are we going in the right direction? Yes."

After starting the season 4-11, the Orioles have put together a solid three-week stretch that has returned them to respectability and planted them firmly in third place in the AL East.

Hargrove doesn't pretend he saw such a quick turnaround coming.

"When you're 4-11, you're just trying to play the next day," he said. "You're not worried about two weeks from now. You really have to concentrate on what you're doing the next day and let tomorrow take care of itself. And we've been able to do that.

"Baseball's a long season, and I guess it's a human condition to automatically assume the roof's falling in when things don't work the first week or two of the season. So it's one of those things you really have to sit and wait until 40 or 50 games to find out. You get terribly burned assuming too much too quickly."

It is still early. A year ago, the Orioles sat 24-24 and stumbled to a 63-98 finish after Pat Hentgen, Mike Bordick and David Segui went down with injuries.

Last year, the troubles seemed to start in late May, when they began a 3-6 road trip to Seattle, Oakland and New York. This team can't help but eye the schedule and see 12 consecutive games with AL West powerhouses Oakland and Seattle beginning May 21.

Sometime around then, the Orioles expect to have a healthy Jason Johnson back in the starting rotation. Johnson chipped the bone in his right middle finger while simulating his throwing motion on April 25 and didn't start throwing a baseball again until this past week.

The Orioles hope they've used up their freak-injury quota of the year. A bigger concern is Segui, who returned to the lineup Wednesday but winced with each swing because he's playing with cartilage and tendon damage in his left wrist.

And though Scott Erickson's surgically repaired right elbow has responded well, he left Wednesday's start after just three innings with a strained right groin. Erickson expects to make his next start, Wednesday at Cleveland.

Take away the Orioles' 7-0 record against Kansas City, and the season doesn't look quite as shiny. But the Orioles took stock in playing the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees tough, despite losing 10 of those 15 games.

And a case can be made that the Orioles have yet to play their best baseball. Jerry Hairston, Chris Singleton and Mike Bordick combined to hit .170 in April, but they entered yesterday batting a combined .310 in May.

While those three struggled, left fielder Marty Cordova and third baseman Tony Batista picked up the slack. Cordova entered the weekend batting .330, and Batista ranked among the league leaders with nine home runs and 27 RBIs.

"I saw this all coming together in spring training," Thrift said. "I saw how hard all the instructors were working with the team so that execution wouldn't be a problem. I saw the team and the personality all coming together.

"I think we have more talent now [than last year], and I think the character is better now. We have a total team concept. This is the first time I've seen that since I've been here. Now we must maintain that."

THIS YEAR AND LAST

The Orioles' vital statictics through the first 36 games of the past two seasons:

2001 .............................. 2002

................... Record

15-21 ............................... 18-18

............. .....One-run games

4-6 ...................................... 6-4

............. .....Batting average

.229 ..................................... .251

.............. ....ERA

4.67 .................................... 4.38

.................. Home runs

22 ......................................... 37

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