3 games is too early to panic, but not too early for doubts

ON BASEBALL

The Kickoff

April 05, 2007|By DAN CONNOLLY

Minneapolis -- Apparently it's never too early to say it's way too early to panic.

That's where the Orioles are right now.

Three games into the season and they have to dust off the sacred first-month standard reserved for slow starts.

"It's 162 games and I hope nobody thinks that one week is the season," Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada said before last night's series-sweeping loss to the Minnesota Twins.

"Everybody remembers how good we started in '05 and we didn't make the playoffs. It's not how you start, it's how you finish."

If the Orioles storm into New York this weekend and sweep the Yankees, no one will remember the opening trip to Minnesota.

It is, after all, one series down with 51 left to go.

But this season has started the way the past several have ended: with a bad feeling, a sickly feeling. And that's before Jaret Wright ever threw a regular-season pitch.

It started in mid-February when the team learned that No. 2 starter Kris Benson was considering surgery for his torn rotator cuff. His mid-March operation was followed with news that starting left fielder Jay Payton would begin the season on the disabled list with a strained hamstring.

Then, hours before Monday night's season opener, the Orioles scratched starting catcher Ramon Hernandez with an oblique strain that might land him on the DL, too.

That was the precursor to the ugly sweep here - one that featured a rough outing by ace Erik Bedard, a one-run defeat that could have been won 100 different ways, and then an absolute nightmare that featured a trifecta of bad baseball: poor pitching, poor defense and poor hitting.

Really, everything seems to be conspiring against this team as the 2007 door opens. Like the schedule. Not only did the Orioles have to send at least part of their team on the road for 10 of the final 11 days of the exhibition season, but the last three included consecutive trips to Ohio, Virginia and Washington.

Then the regular season starts with three games in Minnesota to face the defending American League Central champion Twins, a trip to New York against the defending American League East champion Yankees, and then a homestand that begins with three games against the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers.

"It doesn't hurt. It's good to play the good teams right away. Get the contending teams out of the way," Tejada said. "We are not really concerned about it. We just want to play a good game against everybody. There's nothing we can do about our schedule."

How thoroughly unlucky has the start of this season been?

Even the weather 1,200 miles away is killing the Orioles.

Rain in New York yesterday canceled the Yankees' game against the Devil Rays, forcing the Bronx Bombers to shuffle their rotation.

So this weekend, instead of having to face Yankees starter Carl Pavano, who has pitched one big league game in 18 months, they'll get former Oriole Mike Mussina, who is 9-5 with a 4.21 ERA against the Orioles lifetime.

"We are going to face good pitching the whole time. These are all good teams," manager Sam Perlozzo said. "But to tell you the truth, I thought we fared pretty well against Mike last year. I don't feel bad about that part of it, necessarily."

The only thing the Orioles can do right now is go into positive-spin mode.

Because baseball is a marathon and three games are a minuscule sample size.

It's just that there have been other harbingers here besides the losses.

The bench, especially with the injuries to Hernandez and Payton, is terribly weak. Wright's spring woes continued yesterday, as he walked five and allowed six runs (four earned) in 2 1/3 innings.

It's the second time in three days the Orioles starter didn't complete five innings. And if they can't pitch deep into games, the improved bullpen will be gassed by June.

The defense made four errors in three games, and there were several other miscues that were ruled hits by a generous Minnesota scorer.

The offense mustered just eight total runs in the series against the reigning Cy Young Award winner and two, let's say, less accomplished pitchers.

In Tuesday's game, the Orioles allowed five stolen bases - four against starter Daniel Cabrera, who suddenly has trouble holding runners on.

Yes, three losses mean nothing in the context of a full season.

Yes, maybe we will have forgotten about this by next week, next month.

Yes, it is too early to panic.

But it's not too early to wonder whether this is the rule and not the exception for 2007.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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