Growing O's come to a fork in road

Tied with '01 at 38-41, O's need to avoid fade

July 03, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Late Orioles game: Last night's game between the Orioles and Angels in Anaheim, Calif., ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http://www.sunspot.net.

Once the Orioles return to Camden Yards next week, fresh off a six-game road trip and three days' rest for everyone except All-Star reserve Tony Batista, they can begin proving that the first half of their season wasn't the same mirage that fooled them in 2001.

Their eyes spotted shade-bearing trees and large pools of water, but their feet touched only dry ground. And the first signs of serious thirst occurred at this exact point, when the Orioles lost five of their last six games before the break and never recovered.

They were home during that critical juncture, which is where at least one similarity ends. The Orioles flew to Anaheim on Monday, getting their first glimpse at the surprising Angels last night before heading to Texas later in the week.

Though they would lose 98 games, the most since 1988, and finish in fourth place for the fourth consecutive season, the Orioles had the same 38-41 record they carried into Edison International Field last night. Those shade trees and water again seem real enough to touch.

The Orioles' 38th win last season was recorded by Josh Towers, who's now on the Triple-A disabled list. The next night's loss was attached to Willis Roberts, who has gone from starter to closer to gyrating setup man. Perhaps at this time next year, names like Rodrigo Lopez and Travis Driskill won't seem so misplaced in the rotation. Maybe they'll have the kind of staying power the team failed to exhibit last summer.

Predictions for the Orioles this season were unflattering throughout baseball, except within the confines of the Camden Yards warehouse. Where others saw limited winter activity and expansive shortcomings, manager Mike Hargrove reviews the 38-41 start and says his club hasn't overachieved. In fact, and this revelation might appear as strange as Batista's using a closed stance, Hargrove says his club could have done better.

Even with David Segui and Jeff Conine on the disabled list, Jason Johnson recently removed from it, and Towers and Calvin Maduro subtracted from the rotation, Hargrove said: "I think that overall we didn't meet our expectations, and I say that because there were times during the season so far that we didn't play up to our capabilities.

"Record-wise, we're pretty much around where I thought we could be, hoped we would be. You could probably talk to a lot of other people and they'd tell you we've widely exceeded their expectations, at least from what I read and heard in spring training and early in the season. But these are a good bunch of guys. They play hard. We've got a long way to go. The season is not anywhere near being over, and we have not achieved the goal that we set for ourselves - for this team to be a legitimate, everyday contender."

Eleven games behind first-place New York heading into last night, the Orioles have no reason to begin making contingency plans for October. There's no need to purchase running shoes, because the wild-card race will proceed without them. While staying ahead of Toronto and Tampa Bay would rate as significant progress, it's not the ultimate finish line for Hargrove.

"As I've said a million times, we're taking the right steps down the right road," he said, "but I think there are a lot more steps to be taken."

It'll take many more before Hargrove classifies the Orioles as a contender. Asked if they can evolve into one in the second half, he said: "No, I don't think we can. We go out every day and we can compete, and that's what you have to establish before you can become a contender. We can't, on a 162-game basis, contend with the Yankees and the Red Sox.

"If a lot of breaks go our way and we get really, really hot, it might be a whole lot of fun. I'm not going to rule us out. But if you look at it logically and realistically, we're not at the point right now where we can contend with them. We've got a fun team. They play hard, and when we do things right, we win, and that's the way it should be. We've gotten better every day and every week, and that's good."

They've improved enough over last season to be 6-6 against the Yankees and 3-2 against Oakland. Going 3-4 against Seattle, with the majors' best record before last night, also warrants praise.

"When we go out and we play the way we can play, not over our heads, but the way we're capable, we've been in every ballgame. And that's all you can ask for, to have a chance to win that day," Hargrove said. "You learn how to win just like you learn how to hit a curveball or learn how to walk. The games that we've been in so far have been really good teaching lessons for us.

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