Orioles see flashes of light in darkness

Front office, players show optimistic faces

September 15, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - It came with little warning, this stretch of painstaking losses for the Orioles, and, with each passing day, the confidence gained over the season's first five months seems to dissipate.

How could it happen? How much has been lost? How has this changed the franchise's outlook on the future?

Peter Angelos, Syd Thrift, Mike Hargrove and the players continue to speak in positive terms about the season - clinging to the fact they had a .500 record less than four weeks ago - but these are questions everyone inside the organization is contemplating now.

Twenty-one games, 19 losses. They haven't experienced anything quite like it since they opened the 1988 season with a 21-game losing streak.

The season is also starting to look like 1986, when the Orioles were sitting in second place at 59-57 on Aug. 5 and then went 14-42 to finish the season in seventh. Baseball seasons last six months, but the final weeks usually leave the lasting impression.

"I think definitely the positives this year are going to out-weigh the negatives," Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick said. "There were so many good things that happened. Guys really showed they belong here and were capable of playing at this level.

"But I think it's very important that everybody realizes it's a long season, and you've got to play 162 games. There can't be any letup."

When the Orioles defeated the Toronto Blue Jays on Aug. 23 to reach the .500 mark for the first time in 3 1/2 months, Hargrove spoke cautiously. "We've got a long way to go," he said that night.

There were two disturbing things about that 11-7 victory, even though the club had come back from a six-run deficit. Gary Matthews had to leave the game with a sore right wrist, and starting pitcher Scott Erickson didn't make it past the second inning.

Matthews went on the disabled list with tendinitis in the wrist and hasn't had an at-bat since. He had become a fixture in the No. 3 spot of the batting order, hitting .295 during his past 35 games, and the Orioles have missed his bat.

Erickson failed to make it past the second inning again in his next start, and the Orioles basically decided to shut down his season, figuring he had pushed his surgically repaired right elbow far enough.

Without Erickson at his best, with Sidney Ponson then on the disabled list, and with Jason Johnson admittedly distracted by his role as the team's player representative in the labor talks, the starting pitching staff was a skeleton of its former self.

The Orioles didn't have long to savor .500. Toronto swept them in a day-night doubleheader the following day. Some players have talked about hitting the proverbial wall, physically and mentally, on that long, hot Saturday at Camden Yards.

"A lot of our players are in their first full year in the big leagues, and they've gotten into September and have to play 40 more games than they are used to playing," Hargrove said. "That's a big load they have to get over. I have to believe the reason we're in the position we're in now is a lot of our players are tired mentally."

The schedule intensified, and the red-hot Anaheim Angels and New York Yankees both kicked the Orioles when they were down. Ponson came off the DL to end the team's 10-game losing streak on Sept. 4.

The players hoped for a springboard effect, but it never came.

"It's tough because we were riding pretty high," center fielder Chris Singleton said. "We were doing pretty well, and now that we're not doing so hot, it's hard to explain, but you definitely feel like there's another side to this club that is just hidden right now."

The starting pitching has been better of late, but the offense continues to sputter. During the first 19 games of this stretch, the club hit .205 and averaged 2.7 runs.

"I'm not trying to sugarcoat it or alibi what's happened," Hargrove said. "If we had our druthers, we'd rather finish off strong. But there have been a lot of good things to come out of this season.

"No. 1, the people we have are better players than they were when we started the season. I think we were able to establish some things that we needed to establish to give this organization and this club a chance to win, down the line."

Hargrove called second baseman Jerry Hairston the team's most improved player, saying of his development, "If that's the only thing we accomplish this year, that's a major accomplishment."

Hargrove also cited Matthews' development, saying, "I think Terry Crowley has done amazing work with Gary."

Owner Angelos said he plans to retain the entire coaching staff, and that group will be back with Hargrove, who has another year remaining on his contract.

When the bottom falls out, there's often a scapegoat, but Angelos chose to stick with a group Hargrove has called the best coaching staff he has ever had.

Thrift remains committed to his goal of making this team a wild-card contender next year, and Angelos is still giving indications he'll spend what it takes this offseason, within reason, to bolster the offense.

The organization has other concerns. Its top three minor-league affiliates - Triple-A Rochester, Double-A Bowie and Single-A Frederick - finished a combined 109 games below .500. That would be problematic for any franchise, and it's especially serious for the Orioles during a rebuilding mode.

Thrift, whose contract expires after this season, had no definitive answers when asked whether player development director Don Buford and scouting director Tony DeMacio would be retained after the season.

"I don't know what we're going to do right now," Thrift said last week. "We haven't reached that stage yet.

For now, the organization's tenor remains upbeat, at least from its highest levels of leadership. The recent stretch of losing for the Orioles hasn't seemed to sour Angelos on the season, as a whole.

"This makes it appear like it's been a disaster, when that's not correct," Angelos said. "Before this thing started, we had the fans excited again."

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