Knocked down repeatedly, Orioles still fighting back

Orioles In Crisis

August 04, 2005|By ROCH KUBATKO | ROCH KUBATKO,SUN STAFF

Late Orioles game: Last night's game between the Orioles and Angels in Anaheim, Calif., ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete re port can be found in later editions or on the Internet at www.baltimore sun.com.

ANAHEIM, Calif. - Sliding further away from first place in their division, the Orioles soon could be playing more for pride than a pennant. It's a familiar incentive for a team that hasn't made the postseason in eight years.

If that's all the Orioles have left, they seem united in their desire to keep fighting. Nobody has quit, they say, and any suggestions to the contrary are met with fierce resistance.

"I don't know why people say stuff like that." second baseman Brian Roberts said. "Who in their right mind is going to go out there and quit? You have guys whose careers are on the line. Who's going to quit?'

Fifteen losses in 17 games before last night could drain the energy from any club, if not the will to live. "I think everybody's playing hard." reliever Steve Kline said. "We"re just struggling. It's been a rough one. It feels like we lost two wheels and we"re still driving."

At least they"re still moving. This normally would be the time to pull off the road and wait for help.

With only one trade consummated at the non-waiver deadline, for outfielder Eric Byrnes, the Orioles apparently are on their own. Many players wanted the front office to make upgrades while the team remained in first place, not as it dropped into fourth.

"We knew we weren't that good." one veteran said, "just like we"re not as bad as we look right now."

How bad are the Orioles? They went 1-7 on their last homestand and were outscored 52-31. They left 77 runners on base. Their starting pitchers registered a 7.31 ERA in 32 innings and twice left games in the third or sooner because of injuries. The bullpen blew three saves and once mishandled a five-run lead. Seeking changes that could ignite a run, manager Lee Mazzilli used catcher Javy Lopez in the cleanup spot last night for only the second time this season. He lowered Melvin Mora to fifth for the first time after an 0-for-17 slump that ended with a single in Tuesday night's 10-1 loss.

Lopez hit safely in four straight games before last night. On this club, still missing Rafael Palmeiro to a 10-game suspension for violating baseball's steroid policy, it constituted an offensive tear.

"I'm trying to find a little mix here." Mazzilli said. "I spoke to Melvin earlier about that and he said the same thing. Sometimes you just need to shake it up."

Mazzilli's contract runs out after the season, and he's been given no assurances that he"ll return in 2006 - or survive the remaining 55 games this year. Players say they aren't distracted by his status, and that it doesn't motivate them one way or the other.

They're not playing to save his job or to push him out the door. Nobody here's concerned about the manager's contract. Nobody wakes up concerned about his status. I've never heard anybody talk about that." said B.J. Surhoff, who replaced Palmeiro at first base again last night.

"Here's the simple fact: We have to play better. It's no more complicated than that."

Support for Mazzilli isn't universal in the Orioles' clubhouse. Players have complained about the way he uses the bullpen. Some don't view him as a strong communicator. But they insist that they'll continue to play hard for him.

"You walk into any office. Does everybody like their boss? No. But if you don't like your boss, do you quit doing your job? If you quit, you go home." Roberts said.

"No player is going to go out there in front of 50,000 people and make a fool out of himself because he doesn't like the manager."

Said one veteran: "These guys play for themselves, not for him."

"You see guys busting their butts and getting no results." he added, "and they become disillusioned."

Asked if he's getting the same effort as earlier this season, Mazzilli said, "Oh yeah. They know they"re in a little bind right now and they"re going to play through that. I don't see any difference from how it was two weeks ago."

Nobody's quitting on him? "No, not at all. Not for one minute would I think that at all."

Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said players have become fatigued, a predicable occurrence as the season rolls into August.

"Some guys are busting their tails, and some are not. They"re just tired." he said.

"Remember that a lot of these guys were never regulars until this season, and then they were put in that position. They"ve given us everything they had and did a tremendous job. But we have a tired team.

"We're also not scoring runs, and that puts pressure on everybody. You see Miguel [Tejada] and Melvin trying too hard. A few weeks ago, Brian began to change his approach. Instead of working the count and getting on base like he was, he was trying to hit home runs right away. That's a natural instinct when the game's on the line, to try to hit a three-run homer with nobody on base."

At least they're still trying. For the Orioles, that's one of the few encouraging signs left in a season that's gone so bad.

"It's always been the same clubhouse, very sluggish before games." another veteran said. "There's not a lot of energy in here. But we have guys who go out on that field and still play hard."

Orioles today

Opponent: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Site, time: Angel Stadium of Anaheim (Calif.), 4:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: No TV/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (9-6, 4.85) vs. Angels' Ervin Santana (6-4, 5.19)

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