Playoff hopes may be sunk, but O's can still right the ship

July 30, 2005|By John Eisenberg

REGARDING the Orioles, it's about time to use that famous quote from former NBA star Micheal Ray Richardson: "Ship be sinking."

Richardson said that in the early 1980s as losses mounted and his team's playoff chances faded one year.

The Orioles aren't entirely under yet, sitting six games back in the American League East and 4 1/2 back in the AL wild-card race - margins that can be made up. They also made a positive if unspectacular deadline trade last night, sending Larry Bigbie to the Colorado Rockies for Eric Byrnes, a high-energy outfielder who hit 20 home runs last season.

But while all that beats the heck out of where the Orioles were a year ago - 17 1/2 games out of first, nine games under .500 - don't be fooled. Margins, standings and deals don't tell the whole story. The Orioles might technically still be in contention, but they stopped playing playoff-caliber baseball a long time ago.

They're still in increasingly dubious contention only because of a fast start that ended six weeks ago and because of the mediocrity of the Red Sox and Yankees, who keep muddling along.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have lost 23 of their past 32 games in a quiet freefall that has dropped them from first to fourth in the East.

What happened to the team that was 14 games over .500 as recently as June 21? Here's the (very) short version: Too many runners left on base, too many pitching meltdowns, no major trades.

The longer version? The Orioles were obviously playing over their heads at 14 games over .500, and their slide is the inevitable correction, proof of the infallibility of baseball's first commandment, that things always even out.

Brian Roberts and B.J. Ryan have come back to earth after otherworldly first halves. The pitching is good enough only in spurts. Miguel Tejada and Melvin Mora can't do it all themselves. The front office has done little substantive hole-plugging. Byrnes is more proven than Bigbie - an upgrade - but his addition is no blockbuster.

Although the Orioles' general improvement from a year ago - and from the past seven years, for that matter - is marked, they still don't have enough pieces consistently functioning at the high level needed for a playoff run.

There are too many nights when their starter departs early, when the eighth-inning pitching is a disaster, when too many runners are left in scoring position.

And while manager Lee Mazzilli deserves credit for keeping the keel even amid it all, there are too many nights when his team doesn't score much unless it pounds a few home runs. Not a lot of little ball going on.

The steady losing has produced a palpable sense of gathering gloom in the stands, an inevitable reaction in the wake of the Orioles' surprising 62-day stay in first place earlier in the season. That raised hopes.

But if you take the broader view, the season isn't a disappointment so much as a step in the right direction - provided the team doesn't collpase over the last two months.

If you had asked any fair-minded Bird-lover on Opening Day if he or she would take these circumstances heading into August - a .500-ish record and roughly five games back in the playoff races - the fan would have accepted, no question. People were more desperate then.

A .500-ish record would have been especially acceptable if the Orioles had started cold and then heated up, gaining momentum instead of losing it as the season progressed.

As it is, the Orioles have been more interesting and competitive in 2005 than in any recent season, and if they pull out of this slump, they could post their first winning season since 1997.

Finishing over .500 was a goal many observers originally thought was fair for them this season, and now that they're back in that vicinity - 51-51 exactly after last night's loss - it belongs on the table.

Feel free to hold out hope for a playoff run, but you might want to see if they can finish over .500 first.

Not to give them a pass for falling from the heights they reached in the first half. They put themselves in position to make something special happen. They haven't followed through.

There's enough blame for everyone - players, managers, coaches, and front office - and who knows what will happen in the coming months? Plenty is at stake with the contracts of Mazzilli, Beattie and co-GM Mike Flanagan set to expire after the season.

Whatever you think of them, the last thing this organization needs is another overhaul, another period of transition. Constant change becomes self-defeating at some point, and the Orioles have reached that point before under owner Peter Angelos.

Their ship might slowly be sinking, but the Orioles still have plenty to play for in 2005.

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