O's turn for the worse leaves hopes in dust

June 14, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

Believe it or not, there was a time this season when the Orioles could count on fattening up on the juicy part of the schedule. They couldn't make a dent against the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels and Detroit Tigers, for logical reasons: They weren't good enough. But get some bottom-feeders in front of them, and watch the feeding frenzy.

Those days are long gone.

This is supposed to be another of those fattening portions of the schedule, and they're getting eaten instead. One nine-game homestand, three three-game series - and they've lost the first two series already, the two against the softies, the Colorado Rockies and now the Washington Nationals. The one last night was worse than the others. It's really hard to rally to take the lead, then lose the lead, then tie the game, then lose it later anyway. But in an 11-inning, 9-6 gag job that ended after 11 p.m., the Orioles managed to pull it off.

Now, it no longer matters who they play. They can figure out a way to lose to the teams in last place just as well as the ones in first.

No wonder they are in last, too.

Yet it doesn't exactly take Woodward and Bernstein to uncover why they can't shake off teams like the Nationals, projected in spring training to be one of the worst teams in baseball history but now with a record only one game worse than the Orioles'.

Stop throwing strikes, that'll turn a win into a loss in a hurry. Fail to turn a critical double play with only the mildest degree of difficulty. Let a two-out, potential game-ending pop-up drop between two confused-looking fielders. Let batters off the hook after starting them off 0-2.

The central figures in most of these meltdowns, by the way, were the team Most Valuable Player, Miguel Tejada; the sure-thing closer, Chris Ray, and the batting hero, Jay Payton. What chance does any Oriole have when their best players can't lock down a win at home against an offense-deprived opponent?

Even a scuffling, patchwork team such as the Nationals can manufacture a victory when given chances like that. And a bunch like these Orioles can blow a lead against a pennant contender just as easily. Walks, errors and brain-cramps don't know what the standings are or how the All-Star balloting is going.

By now, the Groundhog Day jokes are played out. It's not funny anymore that the Orioles keep losing almost the same way every night. Actually, it's not so much repeating the same game over and over; it's putting the same facts together in a different order.

"It's certainly one of the games that we've been experiencing for a good bit of the season," a stoic Sam Perlozzo said afterward. "Or enough times, put it that way. Enough times where it may end up being a little bit tougher loss than normal."

It looked like that kind of loss, during and after it. The clubhouse wasn't packed with brooding, despondent players; it wasn't packed at all. Players bolted as if their car alarms had gone off immediately after the final out. Ray was one of the very few who stayed long enough to try to explain it. He couldn't.

"It's frustrating anytime you lose," he insisted, pointing out that this one was no worse than any of the others. Last night, he would have sent the game into a 12th inning had either Tejada or Payton gotten to that pop-up, or if he hadn't walked the next two batters, then given up a triple to Felipe Lopez to clear the bases (and, essentially, the home clubhouse).

"A loss is a loss," Ray added.

Some losses weigh more than others, though, and this was the kind that can crush a team. And, it has to be said, crush a manager. It probably doesn't even matter if any of this is Perlozzo's fault. It probably doesn't matter if John McGraw were brought in; who's to say he could get this team to make a routine fielding play or throw a pitch in the strike zone? The night before, it was Daniel Cabrera unable to close out innings; last night, it was an assortment of pitchers who couldn't hold leads or protect ties. Sixteen runs the past two nights by, again, the Nationals.

And even on a night when they got runs and clutch hits, even against the Nationals' own ace closer, Chad Cordero, they also went down meekly when they could afford to the least. Like in the bottom of the 11th.

It seems like a different millennium that these guys had caught their breath and won six in a row to stave off the last threat to the manager's job. Since then, they've lost nine of 11. This could snowball fast. Jeremy Guthrie suddenly has to be a stopper tonight, and the way his teammates have coughed up his leads, he probably thinks he's jinxed.

Then come three against the Arizona Diamondbacks at home, then six games out West, followed by six here against the New York Yankees and Angels. By the time that's over, you might not recognize this team.

But you might have this date in mind: July 30 - the day of the Ravens' first training camp practice.

david.steele@baltsun.com

For David Steele's column on Orioles starter Daniel Cabrera, go to baltimoresun.com/steele

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