As O's Test Faith, Now It's Time To Pray Harder

July 29, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

If you're an Orioles fan who has stood fast with Andy MacPhail's rebuilding program for the past 26 months, it's OK to be a little scared right now.

It's all right to wonder whether all the dominoes are going to fall in the right direction. I'm wondering that. You're wondering that. Trust me, MacPhail is wondering right along with us.

Rebuilding, as you've seen over the past few months, is not a perfect science. It's mostly about good long-range planning and development, but it's also part crapshoot and - yes - even a little bit of blind faith.

The Orioles are testing what remains of that faith right now. They lost seven of nine games on the first road trip after the All-Star break, including five of six to the rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. They lost the (nonmathematical) second-half home opener on Monday night to a pitcher (Bruce Chen) who left Baltimore under unhappy circumstances and returned with an 0-5 record for one of the two teams actually doing worse than the Orioles in the won-lost column.

Manager Dave Trembley is under fire - even though he was just forced to send 6-plus-ERA starting pitchers to the mound on back-to-back nights against the Kansas City Royals - and the fan base gets more restless by the day.

These are not happy times, so I'm not going to sprinkle Orange Kool-Aid on you and tell you it's raining. Right now, it's probably starting to taste more like yellow snow.

That's why today's game against the Royals is another critical juncture in this transitional season. Top pitching prospect Chris Tillman is scheduled to take the mound for his major league debut, and he'll become the latest in a series of Orioles up-and-comers to try to keep the customers satisfied until things truly start to get better.

Tillman was the highest-ranked Orioles pitcher on that Baseball America list of the top 100 major league prospects that came out this spring. Catcher Matt Wieters was No. 1, of course, but Tillman was No. 22 and Brian Matusz was No. 25. Tillman and Matusz were ranked as the eighth and ninth best pitching prospects in baseball.

Now, I don't want to put too much stock in those rankings, since neither Brad Bergesen nor Nolan Reimold made the top 100, but it's still indicative of how the industry views Tillman's potential, so it's fair for fans to take another night off from 11 1/2 years of legitimate skepticism to take a look at the kid and imagine what he might do in the future - especially with Matusz and Jake Arrieta (No. 67) still waiting in the wings.

Tillman is the guy who should make you forget that MacPhail held his place in the rotation of the future by trotting out the likes of Adam Eaton and Rich Hill this spring. The Orioles, you all know, acquired Tillman in the deal that sent front-line starting pitcher Erik Bedard to the Seattle Mariners. The Orioles also got Adam Jones, closer George Sherrill, reliever Kam Mickolio and injured pitching prospect Tony Butler, which was quite a haul for a guy who spent most of last year on the disabled list and just headed there for the second time this year.

That deal, along with the trade that sent Miguel Tejada to the Houston Astros for Luke Scott, Dennis Sarfate, Matt Albers, Troy Patton and Mike Costanzo, completed the foundation of MacPhail's rebuilding plan. And it could pay off again if MacPhail succeeds in dealing Sherrill by Friday's nonwaiver deadline for more position help - preferably a promising corner infielder.

Tillman's debut, however, might be just a diversion if the Orioles continue to sag in the second half. Lots of fans have put their trust in MacPhail's plan, which was never meant to produce a contending team in 2009, but part of that plan was for the team to begin showing signs of life during the final months of this season.

There's still plenty of time for that to happen, but fans can be forgiven for watching the way this team has played the past two weeks and wondering whether it ever will.

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Starting off

Tonight, Chris Tillman will become the fourth Orioles starting pitcher this season to make his major league debut at Camden Yards. Here is how the others fared:

Pitcher Date Opponent Result IP H R ER BB K

Brad Bergesen 4/21 White Sox W, 10-3 5 2/3 4 3 1 2 4

Jason Berken 5/26 Blue Jays W, 7-2 5 7 2 2 3 3

David Hernandez 5/28 Tigers W, 5-1 5 2/3 5 1 1 4 3

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