Roller coaster of a first week doesn't make Hargrove jump

`Of four games we lost, two we could have won'


April 08, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

In just one week, manager Mike Hargrove has viewed his team through thick snowflakes, in tightly contested games and in embarrassing situations. His ace has been battered, his underachieving No. 4 starter temperamental, his offense schizophrenic. And as the Orioles approach their first road trip, which begins tonight against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he's still trying to pull them out of fourth place.

He should have calluses by now.

"I'm OK with it," Hargrove said of the season's opening week. "I'm not OK with the fact we're 2-4. Of the four games we lost, two of them we could have won with a break here or there, so it could be 4-2."

Why stop there? How about 158-4, a numerical possibility that would gain some legitimacy if the remaining schedule included only the Devil Rays?

New manager Lou Piniella already is making drastic changes to his lineup, shifting Aubrey Huff to right field and inserting Damion Easley at third base, a position he hasn't played in seven years. Piniella is handing over the closer's role to Lance Carter, a 28-year-old rookie who has undergone two ligament-transplant surgeries on his right elbow.

Carter no longer will share the duties with Jesus Colome, who surrendered three home runs in the ninth inning of Friday's 12-2 loss to the New York Yankees.

And Hargrove thinks he's got problems.

They begin with an offense that has provided a lead only once after six innings - Saturday's 2-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox. This was an issue during last year's 4-32 finish, and the Orioles still aren't equipped to play from behind, especially when unable to move runners into scoring position or get them to third base with fewer than two outs.

During Sunday's game, a third-inning double by Brook Fordyce narrowed Boston's lead to 4-1, and Red Sox starter Tim Wakefield still hadn't retired a batter. Jerry Hairston grounded to the right side, with Fordyce taking third, but Gary Matthews popped up. After a walk, Jeff Conine hit into a force.

Jay Gibbons doubled to begin the second inning of Thursday's 3-0 loss, but couldn't advance when Tony Batista grounded to third. The ball never left the infield. Gibbons never left second base.

On Friday, Batista led off the second inning with a double, but the next two batters flied to center.

"Our situational hitting has not been what we want it to be in the first six games," Hargrove said, "but I'm pleased with the effort by everybody concerned, and it's something to build on."

Hargrove has been chafed by the miscommunications in the infield. A pop-up from Boston's Manny Ramirez glanced off catcher Geronimo Gil's mitt for an error Friday as he lunged for the ball and Conine arrived late from first base. Conine and Fordyce collided on Sunday.

"We work on that stuff continuously in spring training," Hargrove said. "Things like that bother me, things I know that we worked on."

Remembering the advice former manager Sparky Anderson gave him many years ago, Hargrove won't make any firm judgments on his club until "somewhere around the 40th or 50th game." Somewhere beyond Rodrigo Lopez's eight-run debacle on Sunday, Sidney Ponson's meltdown two nights earlier, and the furious ninth-inning rally that ended with Deivi Cruz being called out at the plate.

The Orioles have been shut out once and held to two runs on three occasions. They've pushed an opponent to 13 innings and been shoved around for nine. The Red Sox were bullies during Sunday's 12-2 beating, a game that Hargrove easily rated as the ugliest of 2003.

"To get an accurate view on a club's strength and weaknesses, that's an ongoing process. It's hard to judge patterns or traits until you get that deep into the season," Hargrove said.

"Early-season records are deceiving. Is Kansas City a 5-0 team? I don't know. I haven't seen them yet. Their past history would say they're probably not."

The past five years have shown the Orioles to be a fourth-place team. They're a half game ahead of the Devil Rays going into tonight, a full game behind the Toronto Blue Jays. Familiar territory doesn't always bring comfort. It doesn't always lure a franchise into wanting to stay there.

"I think we have a competitive team. I really do," Hargrove said. "There are some parts that aren't percolating on all cylinders right now, but they will."

"It's way too early," Fordyce said. "Is it where we want to be? Absolutely not. It's not even close to where we want to be. But that has no bearing right now."

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