4-32 final curtain won't bring encore, determined O's say

Citing injuries, Orioles claim sorry '02 stretch run won't be factor this year

February 25, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - OK, baseball historians, here's a quiz:

When was the last time a major-league team had a worse 36-game stretch than the 4-32 debacle the Orioles had to close last season?

Here are some clues: Connie Mack, Nap Lajoie and Shibe Park.

Baseball-reference.com, a Web site that charts every game since 1901, shows that the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics were the last team to fare worse over one 36-game span.

Mack was a Hall of Fame manager, and Lajoie was a Hall of Fame second baseman, but that A's team went 2-34 from June 30 to Aug. 4 and finished 36-117.

Since that time, three other teams have endured 4-32 stretches: the 1949 Washington Senators, 1982 Minnesota Twins and 1996 Detroit Tigers.

It has been nearly five months since the end of a season brought a merciful end to the Orioles' struggles, and time has given the club perspective. But mention 4-32 anywhere inside the spring training clubhouse, and players still cringe.

"People make too much of it," Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston said. "Let's say the Angels lost Garret Anderson, Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus at the same time. How would they fare? Not too well, and they're the world champions.

"When we lost David Segui [in May], we tried to compete and came back to .500. When [Jeff] Conine was out [for 45 games at midseason], we played hard and still competed. But when we lost Gary Matthews [on Aug. 23], that was the straw that broke the camel's back."

The date Aug. 23 now lives in infamy for the Orioles. Matthews had hit .295 in the previous 35 games batting mostly in the No. 3 spot, and that night, he left the game with a right wrist injury. Tendinitis would keep him out the rest of the season, but the significance of the injury was lost in the team's post-game jubilation.

The Orioles had reached .500 for the first time in more than three months. Owner Peter Angelos had said from the start of the season he expected the club to play .500 or better, and in some ways it felt like mission accomplished.

At 63-63, the Orioles sat comfortably in third place in the American League East, 16 games behind the first-place New York Yankees and 10 games ahead of the fourth-place Toronto Blue Jays.

After the 36-game stretch, the Orioles were back in fourth place for the fifth consecutive year, 11 games behind the third-place Blue Jays and 36 1/2 games behind the division champion Yankees.

The Orioles hadn't finished that far out of first place since 1955.

Now that spring training is here, these Orioles have tried to put 4-32 in a box and place it someplace they can forget.

"I don't refer to it; it's a negative," hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "I know I have work to do to make us better, and I already have their attention when we work, so I don't need to go for any shock therapy or anything like that."

Crowley has a tough job because it's the offense that struggled most during the skid. The Orioles scored 103 runs, and gave up 210.

The skid started with 10 straight losses. Then it was one win and another eight straight losses. For their finale, the Orioles finished with a 12-game losing streak, the longest drought to end a season since the 1899 Cleveland Spiders lost their final 16 games.

In that final 12-game stretch, the Orioles averaged 1.75 runs per game.

According to Baseball-reference.com, no team since 1901 has had a worse 36-game finish to a season than the 2002 Orioles. They were a team filled with several players who seemed to hit a wall after Aug. 23.

Looking at the numbers, there's a direct correlation between players who played in a career-high number of games for the season and those who struggled the most in September.

Tony Batista played a career-high 161 games and hit .174.

Melvin Mora played a career-high 149 games and hit .155.

Geronimo Gil played a career-high 125 games and hit .137.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove was asked if he planned to do anything differently this spring to try and prevent a similar late-season collapse.

"I really don't think going 4-32 had anything to do with what we did in spring training," Hargrove said. "We came out of spring training ready to play. I've looked at it 15 ways from Sunday, and I honestly believe that [Jay] Gibbons being hurt all year, off and on, with his wrist, missing Conine for two months, having Segui 26 games, and how coincidental is it that the last five weeks of the season, Matthews misses, and we go 4-32?

"You take those types of hitters out of anybody's lineup and your run production is going to be hurt."

The organization made one major change this offseason, replacing vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift with Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan.

Now, with Hargrove entering the final year of his contract, he could be the next to go if the Orioles can't somehow put the end of last season behind them. But Flanagan said everybody in the organization should look at this as a new beginning.

"We're all pretty good about taking a bigger view about the season," Flanagan said. "If the 4-32 had happened at the beginning part of the season and they ended with that record [67-95], everybody would say that was a pretty good turnaround."

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