O's dangling above bottom

Team holds slim edge over Devil Rays in race to not finish worst in big leagues

September 27, 2007|By JEFF ZREBIEC

For Aubrey Huff, it has been a way of life. In three of his first seven seasons, Huff was on Tampa Bay Devil Rays teams that finished with the worst record in the major leagues.

"I don't know any better," said Huff, the Orioles' designated hitter. "I've been in last place pretty much my whole life."

For the Orioles, it remains relatively unfamiliar terrain. While their stretch of futility extended to 10 straight losing seasons this year, they've been able to accomplish one thing during that span: avoiding the ultimate indignity of finishing with the worst record in the major leagues. But with four days left in the season, that dubious feat remains within their reach. All the Orioles have to do is keep losing.

The Orioles (67-91) are just two games separated from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (65-93) for baseball's worst record and last place in the American League East. The Kansas City Royals, Florida Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates are all 68-90.

Since 1954, the Orioles have finished with the worst record in the majors only once - in 1988.

"It's embarrassing, it's sad, it's a lot of things," second baseman Brian Roberts said.

The 1988 team lost its first 21 games en route to a 54-107 record. The 2007 Orioles suffered through a prolonged stretch that might be nearly as humiliating.

In a three-week span from late August into September, the Orioles gave up 30 runs in a game, the most in the modern era, to the Texas Rangers; allowed 11 runs in one inning to the Devil Rays; were no-hit by Boston Red Sox pitcher Clay Buchholz in his second major league start; and lost nine straight games.

On Aug. 21, the Orioles were 58-65, 12 games ahead of last-place Tampa Bay and just four games behind the third-place Toronto Blue Jays. But since then, they've lost 26 of 35 games, a stretch that started with the drubbing they received by Texas in the first game of a doubleheader Aug. 22, the day manager Dave Trembley's contract was extended through next season.

"I think after that 30-3 game, that's where it all started," Huff said. "People say that it's only one game, but it seemed like it affected us for much longer. I don't know if it was the confidence factor or what, but that seemed to be the point where we went down."

The Orioles haven't been able to get back up. Many of their recent problems can be attributed to a beat-up pitching staff. Daniel Cabrera is the only member of the Opening Day rotation who hasn't been traded or shut down with an injury. As for the seven-man bullpen that started the season, only Chad Bradford and Jamie Walker remain.

Over their previous 34 games entering last night, Orioles pitchers had posted a 7.54 ERA and allowed eight runs in an inning twice and nine, 10 and 11 runs in an inning once each. The Orioles' ERA this month before last night's game, in which they allowed eight runs in the first inning, was 6.64, the second-worst September ERA in the majors in the past 51 years.

"It's hard to put too much stock into it just because what has happened," Roberts said. "I don't think any team can really win when you've lost basically your entire rotation from April. You can't look right now and say this organization is an absolute wreck because I don't think we are. It may look like it right now. But any organization would look like that right now if they were in the situation that we're in. But we're not going to be a last-place team because that's where we should be, I'll tell you that."

Several Orioles maintained that while they know the Devil Rays are bearing down on them, they don't know where they stand overall. They've resisted the temptation to look at the standings in the newspaper.

"It will drive you crazy if you let it," Huff said. "I learned that the first four years in Tampa. If you think about it, you'll go nuts."

Said outfielder Jay Payton: "The embarrassment factor is when you lose a game, 30-3, or you're getting your butt whipped every game, giving up 10 runs. You're going to lose games. Somebody's got to lose. Somebody's got to be the worst team in the league."

The Orioles face the Toronto Blue Jays tonight and then finish the season with three home games against the New York Yankees, who might be in a position to rest several of their regulars over the weekend. The Devil Rays play the final game of a three-game set against the Yankees tonight and then close the season with three in Toronto.

The team that finishes with the worst record in the league will get the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Orioles haven't drafted first overall since they selected pitcher Ben McDonald in 1989.

"I'm very much aware of what the statistics are and the standings and all that," Trembley said. "But I have not been stressed out over it. I'm definitely not happy about it, but I understand there is a reason for everything."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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