Don't tread water, O's

dive in and get pitcher

June 15, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

THE ORIOLES find themselves in a situation that, let's face it, few expected when this season began.

The Yankees and Red Sox aren't invincible. The American League East could be there for the taking. And the Orioles, who have led the division since April 23, could be the ones to take it.

Sure, the season isn't even half over yet and certainly will take many more unforeseen turns, but we're far enough along to know which teams have something to play for, and the Orioles - somewhat surprisingly after seven straight losing seasons - are among those that do.

Not that co-GM Jim Beattie sounded the least bit surprised before last night's game.

"This club, as constructed, when healthy and performing, is a championship club," he said. "It's a club that can get you to the playoffs."

Strong words. But note the caveats: "as constructed" and "when healthy and performing," he said. That's a perfect world, the "on paper" world, without injuries and slumps - a world that doesn't exist.

In the real world, where the Orioles are winning but can't afford to slip, they need to take this surprising chance that has presented itself and be extra aggressive with it.

That means making a major move to improve the club sometime in the next six weeks.

And that also means playing to win mentally as opposed to playing not to lose - a more conservative mind-set that seems to have crept in during the two-week road trip that just ended.

Manager Lee Mazzilli said after the trip that he was pleased the team didn't lose ground. Huh? The Orioles easily could have gained ground, having played mostly losing teams while the Yankees and Sox muddled along. For the Orioles, the lost series in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati represented blown chances to gain ground.

With all due respect, the manager should be pushing his division-leading team to continue surpassing expectations rather than allowing it to settle for treading water.

You can be sure the Yankees and Red Sox aren't satisfied with weeks in which they muddle along slightly below .500.

Granted, it is to the Orioles' great credit that they have held their division lead while playing through a series of debilitating injuries. Forced to go in personnel directions they never envisioned - Hayden Penn? Jeff Fiorentino? Sal Fasano? - they have survived and even prospered in some cases.

But the challenge of remaining ahead of the Yankees and Red Sox is daunting, and it all but begs for more significant moves.

The starting pitching hasn't been as dependable lately (possible motto: Chen and Penn and Who Then?), and with Erik Bedard now looking at being out at least another month, the situation could get dire.

What the Orioles really need is a solid, front-line starting pitcher to give some ballast to the rotation.

Some observers believe the team needs hitting help more, but the logic in that escapes me. The Orioles lead the AL in hitting and they're third in runs scored. They're hitting enough.

What they really need is to make sure all those runs hold up. Pitching does that.

Giants ace Jason Schmidt is an example of a pitcher who could help, and he might become available if the Giants continue to crater. (Hey, just a thought.) And if the Orioles can't locate a starter, they should focus on the bullpen, which is having increasing trouble in the seventh and eighth innings.

Beattie wasn't ready to commit to making a major move last night, hedging that he was satisfied with the team as originally "constructed."

"Do you need to make a big move?" he was asked.

"No," he said quickly.

But then he conceded the personnel market was open and calls to teams were being made.

"Yes, we have had some conversations about particular players," he said, "but what we're hearing is, `Yeah, we might have some interest but it's too soon.' "

What about that starting pitcher? He smiled.

"We're looking at [improving] a couple of areas that I'm not going to tell you about," he said. "There's no doubt we could have used a little more dependability in the rotation lately. But we could also add a bat."

Either way, he said, the team is in a position to deal.

"We have the resources to do something significant," he said, referring to the prospects in his minor league system. "But we need to weigh a lot of things. We need to get our injured players back and see how they perform, and see how the team performs overall when it's together, and then we'll decide what to do."

Meanwhile, a chant echoes throughout Birdland, growing louder by the day as this surprising season progresses:

Deal, baby, deal.

A chance is there. Be aggressive with it.

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