O's recipe for success will be tested late in season

August 10, 2004|By John Eisenberg

THE ORIOLES HAVEN'T just won seven games in a row. They've won 16 of 25 since the All-Star break, and 26 of 46 since mid-June.

Don't faint, but that's a fairly long stretch of encouraging baseball from a team that went glub and hit a rocky bottom in June. Why the turnaround now? Let us count the reasons.

Daniel Cabrera and Dave Borkowski have stabilized the starting rotation.

Pitching coach Ray Miller is whispering the right things to starters Sidney Ponson, Erik Bedard and Rodrigo Lopez.

An injury moved struggling Luis Matos to the bench, paving the way for a lineup with more punch.

And lastly, Melvin Mora and B.J. Surhoff are healthy and hot.

Other factors are involved, but those are the most important.

You shouldn't make too much of the sustained success at this point; even with their recent rush of victories, the Orioles' overall record (53-57) is still the same as it was in 2002 and 2003 after 110 games, and you know how those seasons ended.

Let's wait and see if a third consecutive late-season collapse develops before pronouncing the patient healthier than believed.

But even if there's no collapse - prediction: it won't happen this year, primarily because of Miguel Tejada's upbeat leadership - what's most important about this uptick is that the front office takes the right lessons from it.

Lesson No. 1: Although the Orioles might be a little closer than believed to putting a winner on the field, they still have a long way to go.

Lesson No. 2: You can never have enough pitching depth.

The first lesson is critical because it's not unusual for a team to mistake a half-season or quarter-season of success with 162 games of it.

The Orioles can't make that mistake. They still have numerous issues to address.

For starters, please note the reason why the recent contributions of Mora and Surhoff are so important: because the lineup was abysmal without them, illustrating the organization's profound lack of depth.

The reality is they had no one to replace Mora, Surhoff and Jay Gibbons when those players went down. Imagine if David "Roy Hobbs" Newhan hadn't fallen out of the sky and hit .360 as a Triple-A signee.

Matos' future is another issue that needs addressing. Thought to be an outfield anchor, he was mildly disappointing in the field and an automatic out at the plate by late July, when he was finally yanked. Maybe the stress fracture in his left shin, which ended his season, was a factor. But what if it wasn't?

With Jerry Hairston playing center again yesterday, the Orioles started six .300 hitters. They haven't fielded a lineup that imposing since the late 1990s. They should be winning more as long as they get decent starting pitching.

That was the original plan for 2004, of course: hit a ton and hope the cast of unproven starters delivers enough outs to win.

The plan was a reach, it turned out, at least with the first wave of starters. Kurt Ainsworth and Eric DuBose went down with injuries. Matt Riley was a bust.

Those injuries and disappointments were similar to what struck the everyday lineup with Mora, Surhoff, etc., but in this case, the organization had the necessary depth.

Cabrera and Borkowski were plucked from the minors because of their composure, their resolve, their mental toughness. They're now a combined 11-7 after Borkowski's victory yesterday.

But they didn't stabilize the rotation by themselves. Miller's plain-spoken good cop persona - so effective when he's a pitching coach, such a detriment when he was managing - has calmed Ponson, eased Bedard's confusion and boosted Lopez's confidence.

Mark Wiley, the deposed pitching coach/scapegoat, was an experienced, academic type who certainly knew what he was doing. But for whatever reason, his message wasn't getting through and Miller's is.

The fact that Cabrera, Borkowski and a new pitching coach's whispers all were needed to save the rotation from imploding should serve as a warning to the decision-makers in the front office:

However much pitching they think they need is, oh, about half as much as they'll actually need. There are going to be injuries. Disappointments. Changes.

Organizational pitching depth isn't just important; it's a must.

Never again, in other words, should they deal a hard-throwing 23-year-old prospect such as Denny Bautista for a 36-year-old middle reliever such as Jason Grimsley.

Even though Grimsley has thrown well, a high-upside starter such as Bautista is potentially the next Cabrera or Borkowski, a guy who can fill a hole that's threatening to ruin a season.

You keep those guys, always. Nurture those guys, always. Give those guys a chance when the time is right.

That's how you win seven games in a row and breathe life into your future.

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