Crossroads blues

Team is changing culture, but losses pile up

On the Orioles at midseason

July 11, 2008|By RICK MAESE

The Orioles blew another one, stumbled into the division cellar, and I'm not sure things are about to get better. Talk about Oriole Tragic.

It doesn't usually take much to push me into a stage of reflection.

Quick example: Reports this week indicated that the Washington Nationals are drawing just 9,000 nightly television viewers in the D.C. area, which makes the Nats about as popular as a steak-knife infomercial. You have to hope there's something wrong with the numbers, because 9,000 is embarrassingly low.

For comparison, on YouTube yesterday the hot titles all dwarfed the poor Nats' ratings, including "How to build a working rocketship" (43,834 views), "Uncensored psychopath rage" (126,201), and, of course, the classic piece of Web cinema, "Fred's mom is missing" (2,131,905).

It's probably the time of year. Once the fireworks smoke clears and the smell of sulfur dissipates, I can't help but pause and take stock of the local baseball club.

In the past, the Orioles approached this juncture in the schedule, and it was little more than a pit stop. Cool the engine, stretch a little, rest a little and maybe stock up on trail mix for the rest of the ride.

But the All-Star break this year feels much more like a crossroads. Nine of the past 10 years, the Orioles carried a losing record into the break.

And 10 of the past 10 years, the Orioles took a losing record into the final day of the season.

This season, they have played miles above their heads but will still likely find themselves below .500 at the break next week. Another disheartening loss last night - the Orioles' fifth straight and their sixth in seven games - leaves them tied with the Blue Jays for last place. It's the first time in nearly a month they have been trapped in the division cellar.

With a series beginning today at Boston, it certainly feels like the Orioles are the verge of something. Maybe not a free fall, but at least a slow, steady drifting back down to Earth.

The sky isn't falling here, even if the Orioles are. And frankly, whatever waits around the bend shouldn't surprise. I sincerely hope you weren't fooled.

They're not the Tampa Bay Rays. Not yet, at least.

If you study the box scores and not the standings, it looks like the Orioles have already arrived at the season's crossroads - and both the offense and the pitchers opted to switch directions.

While the pitchers (particularly the bullpen) carried this team through long stretches of the schedule, it's the hitters who have surprisingly been sustaining the fight in recent games. In losing six of their past seven, the Orioles have been outscored only 52-49.

A team that not long ago led the majors in one-run wins has now lost four straight one-run games, the latest courtesy of George Sherrill's blown save last night.

The echoes calling for hitting coach Terry Crowley's head had barely dimmed, but all of a sudden the offense is the only thing that seems to be working. Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff are hitting everything in sight, the team finally seems to realize what "run support" means, and you couldn't ask for more timely hits.

Elsewhere, though, the team gives the impression that the season is wearing on it. The Orioles managed to dodge injuries the first few months and took advantage of many fortunate hops. But recently their pitchers have been making a beeline from the mound to the disabled list, infielders are committing more mental errors than high-schoolers whose parents are out of town, and the shortstop position is a nightly question mark.

It has resembled a bad American Idol audition tape on some nights, where you can't help but cringe and turn away.

All that said, nothing the Orioles do over the final stretch of the season should take away from their modest accomplishments through mid-July.

I don't expect them to finish above .500, but based on what we've seen, it is fair to expect them to play hard, to go nine full innings every night and to make every game interesting.

This season was never about wins and losses. It was about changing a culture. Entering the All-Star break, the Orioles have set a promising tone, if not a realistic pace.

I don't expect them to keep up the wins. I do expect them to keep playing the same style of baseball.

"We'll keep plugging away," manager Dave Trembley promised before last night's game.

He noted that more than half of the Orioles' games have been decided by two runs or fewer. Sometimes the Orioles won those, and sometimes they lost. If, at season's end, fans look at this team and think, "Close, but not quite there," that would be a good sign.

When you're watching a pot and waiting for the water to boil, it's OK to pause and reflect. The Orioles, though - whether it's mid-July or late September - aren't looking for a report card; they're still best served by progress reports.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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