O's are front-, back-loaded with pitching problems

July 05, 2005|By John Eisenberg

NEW YORK - Their starting pitcher was terrible. Their late relief was even worse.

After yesterday's devastating 13-8 loss to the Yankees, the race is on to identify the Orioles' biggest problem as they try to keep their surprising 2005 season from unraveling.

Is it their starting rotation? The back end of their bullpen?

Those areas are running neck and neck, and headed for an ugly dead heat if yesterday is any indication.

Combined, they're starting to put a crimp in the notion that the Orioles are realistic playoff contenders.

Yes, it's that serious.

"I know my team; they'll bounce back," manager Lee Mazzilli insisted.

But little good is going to happen unless the starters and late-inning relievers get turned around.

The Orioles played well enough to win in some ways yesterday, digging out from an early six-run deficit to take a lead into the eighth inning as the hitters repeatedly delivered and middle relievers Todd Williams, Tim Byrdak and Chris Ray pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings to silence a sellout holiday crowd.

But a bad start from Bruce Chen and brutal late relief eventually contributed too many obstacles for any team to overcome.

Chen only faced 11 Yankees batters before being lifted, but three hit balls out of the park - way out. Gary Sheffield sent a line drive deep into the left-field seats. Hideki Matsui deposited one into the upper deck above right field. Even Jason Giambi knocked one out, as he used to do all the time before, well, never mind.

It almost appeared the Yankees were playing golf rather than baseball, spraying booming, Tiger Woods-like drives out from home plate.

"I was terrible, just terrible," Chen said.

The problem? He threw too many changeups out of the strike zone, Mazzilli said. The Yankees laid off them, got ahead in the count, waited for fastballs and ripped them.

"[Chen] needed to make an adjustment there, and he didn't," the manager said.

Chen has a sore toe and has pitched well this season, so he was due a clunker. But the Orioles really needed an ace-like performance from him because their starters were 2-8 with a 6.99 ERA since June 19 going into yesterday, and the team - not coincidentally - was in an increasingly worrisome funk.

Yesterday's loss - the team's 16th in its past 25 games - is only going to raise the concern level.

It says everything that the Orioles went in hoping Chen, their journeyman surprise, could be the big-shouldered stopper to reverse their fortunes after a losing homestand.

Please. The guy has done well, but he's a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, not an ace.

With Erik Bedard injured and Sidney Ponson, Daniel Cabrera, Rodrigo Lopez and Chen less dependable lately, the Orioles don't really have a starter they can count on as a stopper. All now have ERAs over 4.00.

Remember when the 2005 season began and the biggest concern for the Orioles was whether their rotation would hold up? Well, nothing has changed three months later, despite the turns the season has taken.

Sammy Sosa's struggles? Irrelevant compared with the rotation's woes.

The many injuries? Obviously damaging, but the end is in sight.

Mazzilli's contract status? Come on.

The only other concern anywhere near as large is the back end of the bullpen, which yesterday was exposed as the huge problem it has become.

Mazzilli brought in struggling left-hander Steve Kline to protect a two-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, and Kline butchered things, yielding a leadoff homer (to lefty Giambi) and a single.

"That's the spot he's here for, to get lefties out there," Mazzilli said. "You go with your guy there. But he's having a tough time."

Kline agreed, explaining that his slider is "flat" and his sinker terrible. "I'm just not pitching well right now," he said.

Then, in a move that spoke volumes, Mazzilli put in B.J. Ryan with none out in the eighth, bypassing his usual eighth-inning pitchers, Steve Reed and Jorge Julio, for his All-Star closer, even though Ryan had never recorded a six-out save.

It was a stretch, attempted out of desperation, and Ryan faltered, but he never would have been in the position if Mazzilli had any faith in Reed or Julio.

Clearly, he does not. And you can't blame him, given how poorly they've pitched.

Jason Grimsley can't get here soon enough, folks.

Between Kline, Reed and Julio, Mazzilli's bullpen is in tatters.

Worse than the struggling rotation? Let's call the race a draw right now.

Meanwhile, it's getting harder and harder to envision the Orioles making it through nine innings of pitching without experiencing some sort of implosion, either early or late.

The toughest of times have arrived.

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