Less than august August is all too familiar to O's

Orioles: For various reasons, the club is ending yet another summer in a tailspin.

August 26, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND, Calif. - Some teams have bad losing streaks. The Orioles have strap-on-your-seat-belt plunges that come with almost no warning, taking a season that was starting to look promising and robbing it of all that was good.

First-year manager Lee Mazzilli doesn't want to hear the comparisons, but the story line seems to repeat itself every year.

Last season, under former manager Mike Hargrove, the Orioles played an impressive series against the Boston Red Sox to improve their record to 57-59. Then, they went on an eight-game losing streak and finished the year with a 14-32 thud.

This year, the Orioles helped stem the talk that Mazzilli's job was in jeopardy with an eight-game winning streak against the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers and Anaheim Angels. They went on an 11-2 run to improve their record to that very same 57-59.

Then they started another losing streak that reached nine games last night. That means in each of the past seven years, the Orioles have had at least one nine-game losing skid.

"I don't like what you said that this team's been through this before," Mazzilli said, responding to a reporter's question Tuesday night. "I don't like that. I don't want to get in that mode of thinking about it that way."

Mazzilli said he couldn't see this coming.

After going 7-0 on a homestand against the Mariners and Rangers, and continuing that solid play through a 4-2 road trip against the Angels and Toronto Blue Jays, the Orioles returned to Camden Yards on Aug. 16 answering questions about their wild-card hopes.

But they wound up getting swept by the Oakland Athletics and the Blue Jays on that homestand, and have dropped the first three games in Oakland, including last night's 3-0 loss.

So how could it come to this? And will these factors contribute to another late-season collapse? Here's a closer look:

Injuries cripple the lineup: On Aug. 18, the Orioles placed left fielder Larry Bigbie (strained groin) and center fielder Jerry Hairston (fractured left ankle) on the disabled list, replacing them on the roster with Triple-A outfielder Darnell McDonald and Double-A outfielder Val Majewski.

The injuries have created holes in the lineup, and good pitchers have exploited those holes. When catcher Javy Lopez had to be scratched on Tuesday because of back spasms, the bottom third of Mazzili's lineup was McDonald (batting .192), Jay Gibbons (.206) and Robert Machado (.164).

That trio combined to go 1-for-11, so even on a night when Mark Mulder looked shaky, he still held the Orioles to four hits in six innings, and they never recovered after Oakland scored four runs off Sidney Ponson in the first.

Bigbie should be back Wednesday, but Hairston is done for the year, and the Orioles can remember 2002, when they climbed back to .500 in early August, only to have center fielder Gary Matthews get injured, and bottomed out with a 4-32 finish.

Mazzilli has repeatedly pointed to the injuries as the impetus for this slide.

"That's the reality of it, and it [stinks]," he said. "But we've got to fight through it. It's my job to get them to fight through it."

Starting pitching goes bad: The Orioles averaged 5.3 runs scored in their first 116 games this season, and just 2.55 runs over the nine games of the losing streak.

But the starting pitching, which had been so good since Ray Miller replaced Mark Wiley as pitching coach in late June, suddenly became undependable. In five of the nine games of the streak, the Orioles faced at least a four-run deficit by the sixth inning.

Rookies Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard look like they've hit a wall.

Since the All-Star break, Cabrera is 3-3 with a 8.10 ERA, and Bedard is 2-5 with a 6.12 ERA.

Cabrera, 23, had never pitched more than 125 1/3 innings in a season, but this year, counting the 27 1/3 innings he pitched for Double-A Bowie, his total is up to 145.

Bedard, 25, pitched just 19 1/3 innings last year, as he recovered from reconstructive elbow surgery from September 2002, and this year he's up to 119.

Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie said the team is monitoring them both closely, but for now with neither complaining of arm fatigue, there are no plans to shut down either pitcher. As long as no one gets hurt, there are valuable lessons to be learned from pitching a full big league season.

Little mistakes turn glaring: When your lineup has holes, and your starting pitching hits a wall, it's more important than ever to play fundamentally sound baseball. The Orioles have made numerous mistakes during the streak, seemingly at the worst times.

On Monday, Rafael Palmeiro sat back on his heels while a little spinner from Eric Byrnes rolled up the first base line. When that ball hit the base, and bounced out of Palmeiro's reach, Byrnes had a single that opened the door for Oakland to score three runs and take the lead.

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