Al East Gantlet Can Tell Birds How Far They've Come

Rebuilding Shows

August 30, 2009|By Peter Schmuck

It's time for the Orioles' annual September swoon, and a bunch of the biggest baseball planets are lined up to make them look like the worst baseball team in the universe.

The New York Yankees come to town next, followed by the wild card-worthy Texas Rangers, and that's just a warm-up for the road trip that begins a 12-game divisional death march against the Boston Red Sox, Yanks and Tampa Bay Rays. In other words, this is the point where this transitional season has a chance to become terrifying.

Now that I've got your attention, I'm going to ask you to get down off that ledge and consider the other possibility - that this could also be the point where the rubber on Andy MacPhail's long-term rebuilding program hits the road.

If you've been paying attention the past couple of weeks, you must have noticed that the Orioles are playing a little better than they were during the early weeks after the All-Star break. Admittedly, it would have been hard to play any worse, but let's hold off on the cynicism until after this Kool-Aid break.

The recent road trip wouldn't have been anything to write home about for the average major league team. The Orioles lost five of nine games and had to work pretty hard to lose a couple of them. The manager and third base coach sparked a minor controversy by splashing their displeasure with the team's poor fundamentals all over the front page of The Baltimore Sun's sports section. The star-is-being-born center fielder checked out of the lineup for a week with a sore back.

And yet, the Orioles played three pretty good teams and were competitive in all nine games. They outscored the Rays, Chicago White Sox and Twins by a combined 36-34 and, if not for that late-inning letdown Tuesday night in Minnesota, they would have had a winning record on the trip.

That may all be small consolation in a year when even the moral victories are starting to seem hollow, but there is little question that the franchise has made significant progress the past five months.

Want proof? Nolan Reimold has been in the Rookie of the Year conversation since he arrived in the majors in May. Brad Bergesen was right there, too, until he was knocked out of the rotation by a line drive that nearly broke his leg. Matt Wieters was not quite so quick to break out against major league competition, but he's looking more comfortable every day.

Want more proof? If Felix Pie had limped off the field with a tight hamstring in early May, Orioles fans would have given him the Kyle Boller treatment and taken up a collection to pay for Reimold's bus fare from Norfolk. When Pie came out of Friday night's game against the Cleveland Indians, those same fans were hoping that one of the team's hottest hitters wasn't hurt seriously enough to miss Saturday night's game.

Pie was hitting .158 on May 6 and MacPhail looked like the stupidest guy in the world for putting so much faith in such an erratic and enigmatic young prospect. Since then, Pie is batting .323 and - some bonehead fundamental lapses notwithstanding - has transformed himself into a pretty valuable extra outfielder. I'm sure we all still miss Garrett Olson, who was recently sent down by the Seattle Mariners with a 3-5 record and 5.88 ERA, but it's probably time to admit that stealing Pie was a pretty smooth move by MacPhail.

The pitching staff, which has been in dynamic transition since Bergesen was called up in late April, is beginning to take shape for 2010. The only starting pitcher remaining from the original rotation is Jeremy Guthrie, and the Orioles' two top pitching prospects - Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz - have arrived at the major league level well ahead of schedule.

Now, they are about to encounter the ultimate test of fire, pitching in September against all the beasts of the American League East, so there are going to be some rough days ahead. But all the young starters have shown they can handle adversity, so the final weeks of the season should allow them to find out just how far they have come in a very short time.

Mind you, it could get ugly. The Orioles are not a good team yet, and just about everyone they play the rest of the way (with the exception of the Indians this weekend and another series each against the Toronto Blue Jays and Indians) is still fighting for a place in the postseason.

This could be the beginning of another big September swoon, but this tough stretch also could turn out to be an important juncture in the rebuilding process. The young O's still have a lot to learn, and the next few weeks could be an education for all of us ... one way or the other.

Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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