Attempts to fix spoil good mix



A Look Inside

May 30, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It isn't hard to see why the Orioles have slipped into the nasty slump that is threatening to undermine everything they accomplished over the past six months. The 2004 season started to unravel when the club began fixing all the things that weren't broken.

Right-hander Rodrigo Lopez was the most effective middle reliever in the game when the decision was made to pull him out of the bullpen and put him back into the starting rotation. In two rocky starts - both Orioles losses - Lopez is 0-1. And the bullpen is in such disarray that the Orioles had to call up and then send back Double-A prospect Denny Bautista about a year before anyone imagined that would be prudent.

Second baseman Brian Roberts was one of the most effective leadoff men in the majors, until manager Lee Mazzilli began to adjust his lineup to create at-bats for Jerry Hairston - even putting Hairston in the outfield to get him enough playing time to prove he was healthy and tradeable.

In each case, there was an ounce of logic to justify the decision, but there also was the foreboding sense that the Orioles might be creating a bigger problem than they hoped to solve.

Lopez had been a starter the previous two seasons and won 15 games in 2002 to rank second in the voting for American League Rookie of the Year. He lost his place in the rotation late in spring training and went to the bullpen with the understanding that he might get an opportunity to re-establish himself as a starting pitcher if he pitched well in relief.

He did that, of course, giving up just one earned run in 12 appearances to post a sterling 0.33 ERA. He certainly earned the chance to start again when Matt Riley came up sore and Kurt Ainsworth came unglued. It just wasn't the best thing for the team, and now it should be obvious to all that he needs to go back to the bullpen as soon as possible.

The Hairston situation was even more complicated, since the Orioles' surplus of starting second basemen was considered the key to solidifying the pitching.

Mazzilli seemed to have little choice but to use Hairston as the designated hitter to increase his trade value, but the decision appears to have disrupted Roberts and cost the club offensive potential from a lineup spot traditionally devoted to run production.

The designated hitter role generally is used to put a big bat in the lineup without regard to the defensive value of the player, or to keep an everyday player in the batting order while resting him in the field. Either way, the DH usually is a middle-of-the-lineup guy, not a displaced leadoff man batting in the No. 9 hole.

Despite two hits last night, Hairston is batting .214, and Roberts' average has been in decline since Hairston came back into the picture. It might be hard to draw a clear connection between Hairston's return to the lineup and Roberts' recent struggles, but it's not a big reach.

Roberts started the season as a classic leadoff guy with one major responsibility - to get on base. Now, if Hairston leads off an inning ahead of him, he must act more as a No. 2 hitter with a different set of priorities. Factor in the pressure of suddenly having to compete again for an everyday job at second base that he has already won, and it's not much of a mystery why Roberts isn't quite the player he was a month ago.

It also is no surprise that the Orioles haven't been quite the offensive team they were before they changed the chemistry by trading power for speed in the DH role. Including last night's 8-4 victory, they have scored more than five runs just four times in their past 13 games.

The first step toward addressing the pitching crisis and restoring the continuity of the batting order is pretty obvious. The Orioles need to make a deal. They need to trade Hairston as quickly as possible for a veteran starting pitcher who can get into the sixth inning and allow Lopez to return to the middle relief role he filled so well.

That might also require the club to give up a quality pitching prospect, something Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan don't want to do, but something dynamic has to be done before this turns into a seventh straight lost season.

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