Off-course, Mazzilli, O's look for direction

Baseball: With the Orioles in last place in the AL East, there is speculation that manager Lee Mazzilli needs a strong start to the second half to save his job.

July 15, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

It's midseason, and the Orioles have a manager on the hot seat again.

Lee Mazzilli has been at the helm for 85 games, and already there is mounting speculation he won't last the season.

Limited by injuries and their pitchers' inconsistency, the Orioles lost 25 of their final 38 games before the All-Star break, including two of three against the woeful Kansas City Royals last weekend, to fall into last place in the American League East.

At 37-48, they entered the break with their worst record since 1999.

A year ago, the Orioles were nine games under .500 at the break, which isn't much better, but that was before they fired Mike Hargrove after the season, replaced him with Mazzilli and restocked the roster with $123 million in free-agent contracts.

Expectations have risen, and industry sources say Orioles owner Peter Angelos is growing frustrated with Mazzilli. Though Angelos has never fired a manager during the season, this could be the exception unless this team quickly rights its ship.

Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan worked to quell that speculation this week. Asked if Mazzilli's job was under consideration, Flanagan said, "No, it's not."

But Flanagan hinted that the next few weeks - starting with the four-game series that begins tonight against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - could say a lot about this team's future.

"We weren't happy with how the first half ended," Flanagan said. "But with three days off to freshen up the club, to come back and play a team from our division with four straight on the road, these games are very important to us."

So how did it come to this? And what chance does Mazzilli have of turning things around? Here's a look at four important factors:

Injury bug strikes again

Rewind: To Mazzilli, there's a simple explanation for the team's descent into the AL East basement: Two members of the starting rotation - Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose - have had elbow surgery. Four key offensive contributors - Melvin Mora, Jay Gibbons, B.J. Surhoff and David Segui - have been on the disabled list.

"I don't know too many teams that lost guys like that in the middle of their lineup and their rotation all at once," Mazzilli said. "The perception is not good if you look at the record. ... I look at it on the positive side. A lot happened during the first half that we didn't have control over, and you're trying to keep your head above water until they're healthy."

Fast forward: Mora can come off the DL on Sunday. Surhoff and Segui shouldn't be too far behind. Gibbons could be a while as he recovers from his torn hip flexor muscle, but the offense will get a boost.

Pitching-wise, the Orioles are still dangerously thin. Ainsworth and DuBose don't figure to contribute much until September, at the earliest, so if another injury hits, the club may need to summon John Maine from Triple-A Ottawa. Either way, Maine figures to get a look in September.

Ponson bottoms out

Rewind: Sidney Ponson was 12-5 with a 3.64 ERA at the All-Star break a year ago. After trading him to the San Francisco Giants, the Orioles brought him back with a three-year, $22.5 million contract. Now he's 3-12 with a 6.29 ERA.

"You'd never think he'd be 3-12," Mazzilli said. "If he were just where he would normally be, that's a five-game difference, at least. And then you're back to .500 and where you want to be."

Fast forward: Ostensibly, the Orioles had Ponson skip his final start before the break so he could rest his sore right groin and hip injuries. They hope to have him start Monday's game at Kansas City - the fifth game after the break.

But beyond giving his body time to heal, they're working on his head, too. After treating him like their ace, they're going back to the same method they used at the start of last season, when he opened as their No. 4 starter. They hope this will help him snap his baffling nine-start losing streak and build momentum.

Shifting trade beliefs

Rewind: The Orioles tried to stockpile pitching prospects last year when they dealt Ponson to the Giants and Jeff Conine to the Florida Marlins. This year, the Orioles reversed course, trading 23-year-old pitching prospect Denny Bautista - one of the two pitchers they received in the Conine deal - for 36-year-old reliever Jason Grimsley.

So far, it hasn't worked the way the Orioles had hoped. Grimsley is sitting on a 15.19 ERA in six appearances with the Orioles (5.34 ERA overall in 2004), and Bautista is 2-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 28 innings for Kansas City's Double-A Wichita affiliate.

Fast forward: One thing the trade did is remind the clubhouse that the front office certainly hasn't given up on this season. The Grimsley move addressed their most pressing need - right-handed relief.

Asked if the team considers itself a buyer or a seller approaching the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, Flanagan said, "I think we can be both." By that, he means the Orioles can match up with almost anybody, depending on the other team's needs because they have a mix of available veterans and prospects.

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