Thus far, Trembley's job Manager of Year worthy

RICK MAESE

June 15, 2008

There's no early rush to the parking lot these days. You have to stick around the ballpark until the final out each night because there's just no telling what might happen.

Once upon a time, no lead was safe at Camden Yards. These days, no deficit is.

Last night against the Pittsburgh Pirates, four times the Orioles trailed and four times they came back. Oscar Salazar's solo home run in the ninth inning tied the score before Ramon Hernandez singled in Freddie Bynum for the winning run to give the Orioles an 8-7 win.

It was the 19th come-from-behind victory for the Orioles - the second in as many nights - and their 15th win in a one-run game.

Forget Orioles Magic. We're talking Orioles Lunacy here.

Sure, you still need fingers and toes to tally their shortcomings, and they could well finish in the American League East cellar, but the Orioles might be the biggest surprise in baseball this season. And much of the on-field success can be attributed to one man. With the possible exception of the Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon, Dave Trembley has turned in the most impressive managerial performance so far.

We agreed before the season that success and progress shouldn't be measured in wins and losses, and that hasn't changed. But when you look behind those wins, you realize just how different this team is in a relatively short period of time.

With cartoon birds back on their caps and orange shirts filling nearly every seat Friday night, the team turned the clock back 29 years, paying tribute to the 1979 American League champions. But today, let's just crank it back 12 months.

One year ago yesterday, the Orioles were swept by the Washington Nationals and in the middle of a nine-game losing streak. Sam Perlozzo was ejected for the second time in a week. He would lose his job four days later.

How did this team get from there to here?

I can understand the Rays near first place and the Seattle Mariners in last. I can understand Barry Bonds sitting at home and Chipper Jones sitting at .400. But if you told me in the spring that the Orioles would be above .500 in June, I'd have immediately ordered whatever filled your glass. Would've made it a double even.

Generally, you notice the impact of a manager in the close games, when the outcome might hinge on a single decision. At this point a year ago, the Orioles were 6-15 in one-run games. They finished the year 13-31.

And this year? With last night's win, the Orioles are 15-9 in one-run games, tops in baseball.

Much of that credit goes to the bullpen and to the fact that one of the first things Trembley did after last season was add pitching coach Rick Kranitz to his staff.

A year ago, after the Orioles threw cash in the wind to improve their bullpen, the relievers turned in the second-worst ERA in baseball (5.71), and opposing teams hit .275 against them. This year, the bullpen's ERA is down to 3.26 and opponents are having a much tougher time, hitting .235. Also, the 2007 Orioles turned in 30 saves all season; this year they already have 23.

This isn't to suggest that anyone's hanging a "Mission Accomplished" sign from the Warehouse, but it does fan the organization's sense of hope. First with Lee Mazzilli, then Perlozzo and last June - a year ago this week - with Trembley, the Orioles rolled the dice on managers with no major league experience. In Trembley, they've finally found someone who can stress fundamentals and teach young players while still inspiring the older ones.

He hasn't had five legitimate starting pitchers all season - or even four - there are question marks at shortstop and behind the plate, and the lineup has no dependable slugger. Some of his decision are curious; Trembley has a gambler's intuition at times. (Last night, for example, he sent Radhames Liz out for the seventh inning, and Liz put two batters on base with one out. Reliever Matt Albers came in and served up Jose Bautista's three-run home run, which gave the Pirates a temporary 5-4 lead.)

But more often than not this year, Trembley finds a way. And more often than not, the Orioles find a way. (Nick Markakis parking a ball on Eutaw Street has a way of making managers look good. And Salazar hitting his first homer since 2002 doesn't hurt.)

From night to night, there are different reasons and different heroes, but when you step back and study what has been an unexpected and entertaining 2 1/2 months of baseball, a team in the midst of rebuilding has to feel comfortable with at least one cornerstone of its future.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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