Breaking Right

Orioles: The team survived a 4-11 start and begins the second half of the season tonight with a surprising 42-43 record.

Orioles Midseason Report

July 11, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

An opposing major-league scout walked through the press box before a recent Orioles game and made an eye-opening statement: "Of all the teams I've seen this season, none has improved more from April to July than the Orioles."

The remark came unsolicited. The well-traveled, veteran scout had seen the Orioles during their horrendous 4-11 start, and he had seen them go 4-2 at Anaheim and Texas on their final road trip before the All-Star break.

To him, the difference was striking.

Inside the Orioles' clubhouse, there is less surprise.

"I think everybody in here expected this or better," first baseman Jeff Conine said. After finishing 35 games under .500 last season, the Orioles will begin the second half of the season tonight at 42-43.

While that might not sound like much compared to their playoff seasons of 1996 and 1997, it's the Orioles' best record at the break in five years. It's also a better mark than 15 other teams in baseball, including the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros.

"We've got a long way to go," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. "But I think if you'd have gone around and polled people before spring training, they'd probably tell you we weren't going to win 43 games all year long."

With their cast of unheralded players, the Orioles were bound to sneak up on some people this season. Their top pitcher, Rodrigo Lopez, spent the winter pitching for the Culiacan Tomato Growers.

They brought a 30-year-old rookie named Travis Driskill to the big leagues after parts of 10 minor-league seasons and watched him go 6-1.

They traded often-injured left-handed reliever John Bale to the New York Mets for Gary Matthews, a career .217 hitter, and saw Matthews blossom right before their eyes.

"I think there was more talent here than people recognized," said Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift.

Before the season started, owner Peter Angelos said he expected the team to play "at least .500." The Orioles have withstood injuries to David Segui, Jason Johnson and Conine, and still managed to stick close to that mark.

On paper, the second-half schedule should be easier, even though it starts with four games against the Oakland Athletics followed by two with the Seattle Mariners. In the first half, the Orioles played 45 of their 85 games (53 percent) against teams currently above .500. In the second half, they are scheduled to play just 35 of 77 (45 percent) against such teams.

Johnson has already returned to the starting rotation, and the Orioles could get Conine back from the disabled list tonight. Segui is scheduled to return in mid-August, and outfielder Chris Richard, who has missed the entire season with a shoulder injury, should be back eventually.

"You kind of have to take it one step at a time," said Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick. "I think certainly the first goal is to get to .500, and you build on that. But I think we have the capability to go over .500, for sure."

Even if the Orioles hold no realistic chance of passing the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for a playoff berth, they have made strides in their goal of contending by 2003. Some of the strides are obvious by the statistics, and some are intangible.

"I don't know that I've enjoyed being around a group of players as much as I've enjoyed being around these guys," Hargrove said. "And that's not to say I didn't enjoy the players I had in Cleveland. But as far as a group, I like these guys, because you know every night you're going to get an honest effort."

Before starting the second half, it's time for some midseason awards:

Most valuable player

Tony Batista: In the first year after Cal Ripken's retirement, the Orioles have seen his replacement start every game at third base, hit 19 home runs and secure the team's only All-Star selection. Batista's grand slam off Roger Clemens on Opening Day reminded this team that it can compete with anybody. The Orioles are 6-6 against the Yankees.

Biggest surprise

Lopez and Driskill: This one has to be a tie because the Orioles had almost no way of predicting either success story. As Hargrove said about Lopez, "We were so smart, we put him in the bullpen coming out of spring training." Lopez (8-3) now has more wins than any Orioles rookie at the break since Dennis Martinez had eight in 1977.

Then there's Driskill, who looks like Clark Kent without the phone booth, and has still produced Superman-like results. The Orioles are 7-1 in Driskill's eight starts.

Biggest disappointment

Josh Towers: After beginning the season as the Orioles' No. 4 starter, Towers never found the form that made him American League Rookie of the Month in June 2001. In five appearances, including three starts, Towers gave up 11 home runs in 27 1/3 innings. His problems persisted at Triple-A Rochester until he went on the DL with inflammation in his right elbow.

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