O's see new end to 53-57 pattern

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

A Look Inside

August 15, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

For two straight years under former manager Mike Hargrove, the Orioles were 53-57 after 110 games, only to have the floor open up and swallow them. If not for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they would have crashed to the bottom of their division.

The numbers seem to mock this team, if only because they registered again this summer.

Four games below .500 with 52 to play. A chance to be respectable. A chance to win over the fans who have stopped caring once the Ravens opened camp.

Do the Orioles have the legs to outrun history?

So far, they've shown a pretty good stride.

The Orioles took two of three games from the Anaheim Angels, a team that was tied for the wild-card lead before being outscored 19-8. They defeated a pitcher, Bartolo Colon, who had won his previous six starts. They handed Aaron Sele his first loss in eight decisions. And they are 19-11 in the second half heading into today.

Once again, the Orioles are long on grit. It would be wise to shorten their memories, making it easier to forget the losing streaks of eight and nine games last year after Aug. 10.

"It's a different team," said Melvin Mora, whose extended absences last season with injuries were critical. "You can't think too much about what happened before. I just want to go forward; I don't want to go back."

No wonder. The recent past is a dark and scary place.

A 14-32 finish cost Hargrove his job last year and reminded the Orioles of how devastating the second half can be. Over the past three seasons, they've gone 78-144 after the All-Star break - the second-worst record in the majors behind the Detroit Tigers (72-152).

Does anyone need to be reminded of the 4-32 stretch that ended 2002? "That was brutal," Jerry Hairston said.

Much of the blame for the rapid fades in 2002 and 2003 lies with injuries and the poor organizational depth that made it impossible to overcome them. But the clubhouse seems united in the belief that the pricey winter acquisitions will prevent a repeat, even with 27 games remaining against New York, Boston, Oakland and Minnesota.

Miguel Tejada already had matched last year's RBI total by Tuesday, and his leadership skills might be more valuable than anything he does with a bat or glove. Factor in Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, plus David Newhan and a healthy Mora, and the lineup is superior to anything Hargrove jotted down.

"Offensively, we're a lot better than we have been the last couple of years, and I think that'll keep it from happening again," reliever Buddy Groom said. "And our pitching has been pretty consistent this month. ... We're actually starting to play better than we have all year."

"We've got better players in here," said Hairston, who was limited to 58 games last season by a broken foot, but is batting .309 this season. "We're a much better team. And we're starting to get healthy."

Isn't that a switch? Even with the season-ending surgery on Luis Matos, the Orioles' training room no longer resembles a hospital ward. Jay Gibbons has returned and David Segui could join him soon.

"Obviously the talent is a lot better," Hairston said, "but at the same time, the last couple years, the guys we had were hurt or were playing hurt. We feel like we're better equipped."

The pitching staff seems invigorated under Ray Miller. But the Orioles must guard against rookies Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard hitting the proverbial wall.

"We showed at the beginning of the year that we were going to be better, but then things happen, people get hurt," Mora said. "But it's good now and if we continue like this, we'll be fine. To me, we've got a great team."

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