Often ready with a reply

Team seems to do best after it has fallen behind

On the Orioles' comeback wins

June 21, 2008|By PETER SCHMUCK

It's only a matter of time before some smart advance scout starts poking around and comes up with the formula to neutralize this new-age Orioles Magic, so there's no reason to keep it a secret any longer.

The best way to beat the O's right now is to allow them to score first. Let them get an early lead and hope it comes with a false sense of security.

This is totally counterintuitive, of course. The team that scores first in a major league game wins nearly 70 percent of the time. That's why there were times in the pre-steroid era when a manager - the late Phillies, Expos, Twins and Angels skipper Gene Mauch stands out - would call for a sacrifice after a leadoff single or walk in the first inning and play for one run right out of the chute.

It might even seem counterintuitive when applied to the O's, since they entered last night's game against the Milwaukee Brewers with a 17-11 record in games in which they got on the scoreboard first. But what are you going to believe, some boring statistic or your eyes?

You've seen it. The Orioles take their sweet time getting on the scoreboard, then suddenly wake up right after the opposing team breaks through. It has happened a lot recently, including every game of the three-game sweep they just dropped on the Houston Astros at Camden Yards.

The Astros scored in the first inning Tuesday night, initiating a seesaw game in which the Orioles took the lead, gave it back and scored two runs in the eighth inning to emerge with a 6-5 victory. The second game of the series remained scoreless until Lance Berkman homered in the seventh inning, but Luke Scott immediately answered with a game-tying homer on the way to another exciting finish. By Thursday night, the Astros should have known better, but they scored in the first two innings and woke up the sleeping giant again.

Over the past 2 1/2 weeks, opposing teams have scored first in seven of the Orioles' past nine victories (entering last night's game), and the O's have come from behind in nine of their past 11 wins.

If you're a sabermetrician - and don't feel bad, I'm not quite sure what that is, either - you're still probably shaking your head right now and wondering whether I've lost my grip on reality. The Orioles entered last night's game six games above .500 in games in which they scored first and three games under .500 in the rest, but after the team's recent surge, you have to view those numbers in a different context.

The Orioles' 20-23 record in games in which they initially fell behind is easily the best in the major leagues. The first-place Boston Red Sox, by comparison, were 8-20 in the same situation entering last night's game. The Los Angeles Angels, who own the best record in the majors (30-4) in games in which they scored first, are only 13-26 when they are forced to rebound from an early deficit.

The 17-11 mark when scoring first is actually the third worst among the 30 major league teams, ahead of only the Astros (18-19) and the crisis-ridden Seattle Mariners (17-13).

What does all this mean?

Well, it certainly doesn't mean the Orioles are better than the Red Sox and Angels, but it does reflect a level of competitiveness and resilience that hasn't been seen around here for quite a long time. They are playing a ton of exciting games and have developed a never-say-die attitude that seems to be catching on with the fans.

The stands might not be full every night, but the crowds are improving and the fans are staying around later. They have to or they're liable to miss something good.

The game that stands out most in my mind was the 10-9, extra-inning triumph over the New York Yankees three weeks ago. The O's fell behind 4-0 and bounced back to tie the score, then fell back by four runs again and staged another comeback. They played into the 11th and gave up the go-ahead run to the Yankees before rallying a third time for the uplifting victory. I couldn't help thinking that, in another year, that would have been a run-of-the-mill Yankees blowout.

Obviously, there is a long way to go, and the Orioles might come unraveled like the 2005 team that spent more than two months in first place, but there is little comparison between those two teams. These Orioles have far more bullpen depth and much better clubhouse chemistry. They also have a manager who has shown he can push the right buttons on the field and off.

Nobody is going to be scalping playoff tickets outside Oriole Park in October, but the O's have taken this rebuilding year and turned it into a surprisingly entertaining bridge to a brighter future - one exciting comeback at a time.

Apparently, all they need is an occasional wake-up call.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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