Frightening reality: O's haunted by their pitching

July 31, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

YOU MIGHT as well not even get mad at the Orioles anymore. Just feel sorry for them instead.

On second thought, go ahead, get mad at them. But feel sorry for them, too. It takes an epic streak of bad luck for starting pitchers to get knocked out of games in the early innings by line drives off their pitching hands twice in three games. When it happened to Sidney Ponson on Thursday, the collective reaction was an eye-roll and a sarcastic, "That figures." Then yesterday against the White Sox, it happened to Daniel Cabrera, and that didn't figure.

What's that, Red Sox, you've got Matt Clement's skull? We'll match that with a pair of right hands.

And poor Chris Ray must have ticked someone off in a previous life, because he ended up giving up the losing runs both times the starters got drilled, on late-inning home runs at the tail end of a parade of relievers that had almost saved the day. He's had a game blow up on him three times since the All-Star break. One more time and he'll need a crisis intervention.

Still, are you really surprised that on the last day of July, at the trade deadline, the Orioles are losing games this way? Did the offseason and spring training not give you enough of a clue? The moaning and wailing all over town was about the same topic: Get some pitching. Who needs another bat? Arms, arms, arms.

The Orioles' brain trust didn't get any - or, they didn't get the right ones, or the ones that could do the job. For two months, it didn't matter. Now it does matter.

So many other factors conspired to send the Orioles into a tailspin of historic proportions, one that dropped them from first place and 14 games above .500 to fourth place and a losing record after yesterday's tough loss against the White Sox. But day in and day out, the common denominator was pitching. There was a flash of promise here, a pleasant surprise there, but in reality, no one knew what the starters or relievers would do.

Today, as the trade deadline clock winds to zero along with the Orioles' true chance of getting back into the playoff race, nothing has changed. They were going to win or lose because of pitching, and right on cue, they're falling apart. Not only are they ineffective, not only do they look burned out, but now they're also unlucky.

It was painful to watch - although, it's safe to say, not as painful as it was for Cabrera to feel - as another starter winced and cupped his right hand awkwardly on his way to the dugout, and another emergency fill-in took the dreaded unlimited warm-up throws.

The O's offense mostly did its part, even its brand-spankin'-new left fielder, Eric Byrnes, who doubled in a run in the four-run third inning. The offense erased a 2-0 lead and later broke a 4-4 tie. It kept giving the O's pitchers chances. The O's pitchers kept giving them back.

Stop us if you've heard that before. If the Orioles do as expected and stand pat today, most of the criticism will be aimed at Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan for not doing anything now, for not getting A.J. Burnett or whoever might stop the bleeding. That criticism will be multiplied if the Red Sox or Yankees get Burnett or some other pitcher who makes the difference.

The anger will all be misguided. Be smart and train your fury at the fact that nothing was done before the season, that the group that made it out of spring training was sold as being good enough, that everybody was tricked by two months of glory.

That was fool's gold. To have thought that the pitching was going to hold up, and be good enough to keep them in the mix with the Red Sox and Yankees, was to have believed in Santa and the Easter Bunny.

Yesterday's loss reeked of desperation, and that's a bad aroma to be surrounding a team that still fancies itself a contender. (Lee Mazzilli and the players were blunt in that acclamation, mainly because they had to be. "What are you going to do, fold the tent?" Mazzilli said.) Two of the pitchers called on to save the day yesterday were put in the same position Thursday, and it didn't go well either time for either Jason Grimsley or Ray. Bruce Chen pitched 1 1/3 innings two days before his next start, which isn't exactly ideal. Steve Kline pitched the ninth and got his daily booing.

Considering what was expected in March, this is not a shock. Now that it's almost August, and the AL East is back to being Boston, New York and the Three Dwarfs, are you going to get enraged because you think an opportunity was lost?

The opportunity was lost long before the trade deadline, and long before the O's starters began wearing targets on their pitching hands.

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