After deluge, Orioles' offense decides to blossom again

March 18, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles were looking for a bounce yesterday, and they got it.

They lit up veteran pitcher Aaron Sele for six runs in the first inning of a 9-0 split-squad victory over the New York Mets to gain some measure of restored self-esteem after the most discouraging day of spring training on Friday.

Every team has emotional peaks and valleys throughout the preseason, but the Orioles must have felt like they were at the bottom of the Grand Canyon when the Minnesota Twins scored 16 runs before a freak rainstorm mercifully intervened and cut the game short in the eighth inning.

If the unrelenting shower of base hits was not bad enough, the Orioles lost to Sidney Ponson, who compounded the indignity of it all by ripping Orioles fans after the game.

He said they "have no clue about what baseball's all about," which is true to an extent. Excessive drinking and womanizing is a long-standing baseball tradition that Ponson tried hard to uphold during his tumultuous years in Baltimore. The fans, who thought he was wasting his talent and stealing his huge salary, just didn't get it.

There is a bumper sticker that sums up Sidney's attitude - "If you don't like the way I drive, stay off the sidewalk" - and he's still wondering, after all those DUI's and that little judge-beating incident in Aruba, why Orioles fans finally soured on him.

The Orioles, meanwhile, had to be wondering where it all went awry. They lost only once in their first nine games of the preseason, but an ugly nine-run seventh inning on Friday punctuated their sixth loss in seven games.

Nobody gets too worked up over the outcome of exhibition games, but the Orioles clearly were trending in the wrong direction. Manager Sam Perlozzo remained largely unfazed by his team's dramatic competitive downturn, but he obviously wasn't happy about it.

No doubt, he and the Orioles brass were relieved when the first seven batters hit safely against Sele in the first inning.

There's a back story there, too. The Orioles nearly signed Sele as a free agent prior to the 2000 season, but owner Peter Angelos backed away from a proposed three-year, $21 million deal because his medical staff did not think Sele could stay healthy for three years.

Angelos was right, though Sele did have a couple of good seasons with the Seattle Mariners before his performance dropped off dramatically.

So much for the history lesson. The Orioles, for the first time in more than a week, were happy to be living in the present. They also won the other split-squad game, defeating the Florida Marlins, 7-3, at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter.

It had to be nice to score a total of 16 runs yesterday after the way the offense has sputtered, but if the Orioles make any kind of run in the American League East this year, it will be because of concerted progress of the four cornerstones of the club's pitching youth movement.

Erik Bedard held up his end again yesterday, pitching five scoreless innings at Fort Lauderdale Stadium to drop his ERA to 0.64 and stay on track for the Opening Day start. Closer Chris Ray remained unscored upon in five spring appearances. Emerging starters Daniel Cabrera and Adam Loewen both have pitched very well.

Top minor league starter Hayden Penn threw three scoreless innings in Jupiter, but a late arrival to the ballpark prompted the team to bump him from his scheduled start and use him out of the bullpen instead. Penn is not expected to open the season in the major leagues, and the mix-up yesterday could hasten his assignment to minor league camp.

Still, just about everything is proceeding according to plan. Spring training has been a largely uneventful, which is a good thing. The only major setback - the loss of Kris Benson to shoulder surgery - was dealt with before the team opened camp. The situation lingered until a final decision was made last week, but the team had long since settled on Steve Trachsel as Benson's replacement in the rotation.

The struggles of the past week would not have arched an eyebrow if the Orioles were coming off a successful 2006 instead of a string of sub-.500 seasons. But, there is growing pressure on the team to convey to a skeptical public that better days are ahead. The early success of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and the end of a long decline in attendance depend on it.

Things really are looking up, but the Orioles definitely needed a bounce yesterday to raise everyone's spirits and begin building momentum for the start of the regular season two weeks ahead.

They got it.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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