Starters' brief outings could mean another long season

May 02, 2007|By RICK MAESE

A year ago today, the Orioles stood at the .500 crossroads one last time. They lost the next night's game and would plod through the rest of the season, dragging a losing record behind the entire way.

This year, with nearly a week remaining before their next Tampa Bay Devil Rays game, the Orioles have already stumbled into reality. Once again, they don't appear to have the pitching to compete, no matter how diluted the American League East is looking.

But it's not time to pile blame on the front office for all the pitching problems, no more than it's time to point a finger solely at the manager. While some are forming a line to criticize Sam Perlozzo's mismanagement, the numbers don't yet justify such fan fury.

It's the Orioles' starters who aren't doing their jobs, and they seem intent on bringing the team's bullpen down with them.

The conspiracy theorist in you might worry that they're exacting revenge for the many blown leads that were given up by last year's bullpen. Someone probably should investigate.

If it feels like a long time since an Orioles starter has pitched seven innings, that's because it has been. You have to go all the way to April 12 and Steve Trachsel's seven-inning outing. That means for nearly three weeks, Perlozzo has been forced to use the bullpen way more than he should.

The Orioles have played 17 games since a starter last pitched seven innings. For comparison, let's check out their division counterparts over that same stretch: The Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox have had eight starters pitch at least seven innings; the Devil Rays have had six starters and even the struggling New York Yankees have had one pitcher make it through seven.

In fact, over that stretch, the Blue Jays' starters averaged about 6 2/3 innings per outing. The Orioles have had just one pitcher make it that far - twice.

This year the Orioles' starters are averaging about 5 1/3 innings per start, which means the bullpen is suddenly responsible for pitching nearly half the ballgame on a nightly basis.

The frustration is starting to show. In a sport like baseball, you can't hide from the game's inherent connectedness, and it's dangerous to start down a path where starters blame the lack of run support, where relievers blame the starters and where fans blame the men in charge. The team put a lot of blind faith in its starting staff and the rewards have rivaled that of a losing scratch-off ticket.

"Somehow, they've just got to do it," Perlozzo told reporters in Detroit after Monday night's loss. "I don't know if you just keep harping and harping at them, I don't know if they start thinking about it too much or what. They've just got to trust their stuff and go ahead and throw the ball over the plate. Our bullpen just can't cover all those innings. We always end up an inning short."

The front office lured the best relievers available during the offseason. But we're talking about a handful of one-inning specialists, not guys who are expected to go two or three innings every night.

The Orioles are using an average of three relievers per game, so it's not really a surprise if the bullpen's arms appear to be tired.

For two years we've heard Perlozzo and pitching coach Leo Mazzone lament that their starters can't go deeper into games. It's not that either is completely married to stringent pitch counts; rather, their starters simply fade way too early. If they were opera singers, they'd be losing their voices when others are still clearing their throats.

You certainly can find instances in which Perlozzo could have better used his bullpen, but it's not like he has been dealt the best hand here. It's barely May and already it looks like some relievers have one arm hanging an inch lower than the other.

The front office signed the right guys to fill out the bullpen but put too much faith in the five guys charged with starting ballgames. The staff ace - the only reliable starter a season ago - has gotten off to a slow start. Of the American League's 14 Opening-Day starters, none has an ERA higher than Erik Bedard's 6.09.

And as a group, Orioles starters lead the league with 81 walks, far more than any other team's starters.

"You just can't have that and expect to win too many ballgames," Perlozzo said. "But I am confident with our pitching staff. I felt very good with our starters. They just have to turn it up a little bit and take us further into the game."

A year ago today, the Orioles were at their crossroads. This year's team better hope its turning point is still up ahead, because one month into the season, the Orioles' starting pitchers are taking the entire team down a dangerous path.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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