Expectations were too high, but Mazzone staff is too low

May 30, 2006|By RICK MAESE

We believe in miracle workers because we see them every day. We see them in classrooms, above operating tables, patrolling our streets. They really do exist in this world.

The Orioles needed a miracle worker. What they got was a pitching coach.

They took a gamble this offseason with their pitching staff. They avoided the free-agent market, barely tinkered with the starting rotation and put their faith and money in a wise guru. Rather than invest in an arm, they opted for a mind. Leo Mazzone was supposed to change everything.

Thus far, things have changed all right - they're worse.

But do you blame Mazzone? Do you blame the pitchers? Do you blame the front office for setting this stage?

Tough questions because there's only one real certainty: Something is very wrong. As the Orioles return home today, they bring baseball's second-highest ERA with them. They've walked more batters than any other American League team. Their starters are a combined 15-22.

They brought in what's supposed to be the sharpest pitching mind in baseball, gave him similar personnel from one season ago, and somehow the entire staff has regressed. So does this make the Mazzone signing regrettable? No, of course it's too early for such a pronouncement. But there is reason for concern.

Manager Sam Perlozzo warned us all spring that things wouldn't change overnight. By June, he said, we'd start to see the Mazzone effect. Well, June is knocking at the front door and the coach has had three months to make his presence known.

So what do we have? A coach who's clearly frustrated, already shifting some of the responsibility for the team's woes. "There is an overall lack of passion on this pitching staff," he said last week.

I don't doubt that's the case, but it's part of Mazzone's job to inspire, cultivate and bolster that passion. No one is going to mistake the staff he inherited with those great arms from his days in Atlanta. The Orioles essentially brought in a world-class chef, dropped him in a kitchen and asked him to make a five-course dinner with some flour, salt and some sour milk.

He wasn't going to add 10 mph to Bruce Chen's or Rodrigo Lopez's fastballs. But you didn't expect to see them degenerate. You didn't expect ERAs above 7.00 and a combined record of 2-12.

The realistic expectation was for him to maintain the veterans' confidence and improve the mechanics of younger pitchers Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard. Instead, every starter on the staff has struggled at some point (most recently Kris Benson, whose ERA has climbed to 4.80).

Mazzone thinks the problem is location. No matter what he tells them, his pitchers cannot put the ball down and away. "If that is something that you can't take care of, what the hell are you doing playing in the big leagues?" he told The Sun's Jeff Zrebiec last week.

The signing of Mazzone was still a good one, much better than throwing money at A.J. Burnett, Esteban Loaiza or Jeff Weaver. (And never mind the Cubs' trade proposal - Mark Prior for Miguel Tejada. Jim Hendry should face fraud charges for even floating that one.)

But it's reasonable to expect a return on the investment before the All-Star break. Last year at the break, the Orioles had a 4.41 ERA. With four of the five same starters, it's currently at 5.61, trailing only the woeful Royals.

Every man in that dugout is somehow tied directly to wins and losses, and the pitching coach is perhaps the most important department manager. When his staff underperforms, the blame deservedly goes straight to the top.

We know Mazzone can't go out there and throw the ball for them, but he's got to figure something out. Fine, don't be a miracle worker, but be a pitching coach. Whether it's mechanics, confidence or bad karma, something must be done. The Orioles are on the verge of falling behind the Devil Rays and plopping into the AL East basement.

The offense is fine and the injuries have been unfortunate. But the pitching is just plain bad. If there's anyone in a major league dugout who can turn it around, you'd think Mazzone is the guy. After all, that's what he was hired for.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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