Showalter aims to steer O's clear of another late-season swoon

Club, which has played to .382 winning percentage in past 10 Augusts and Septembers/Octobers, is on pace for first winning August since 1997

August 23, 2010|By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun

Through all the Orioles' losing in the past decade-plus, amid all the statistics that accentuate recent baseball futility in Baltimore, there's one fact that seemingly stands alone in provoking utter disbelief:

The Orioles' consistently abominable records in recent Augusts and Septembers.

How bad has it been?

The Orioles' last winning August was in 1997, when they were 18-10, the most recent season in which they had an overall winning record and made the playoffs. Dating to 2000, the Orioles have had no winning Augusts and just one winning September/October (19-13 in 2004) in 20 tries.

In the 10 seasons before this year, the Orioles compiled a 218-352 record from Aug. 1 on. That's a .382 winning percentage, which, extrapolated for a full schedule, would amount to a 100-loss season.

"That is definitely something that has got to be rectified," said new manager Buck Showalter, who concedes that he didn't realize the depth of the club's annual ineptitude in the final two months.

"The common denominators of teams that are in the playoffs are that they finish strong and they play well on the road," Showalter said. "That's as common as a good ERA or good defense or whatever. Not many people back into the playoffs."

Showalter already has been heralded as a miracle worker of sorts since he took over the team with baseball's worst record Aug. 2 and immediately ticked off eight wins in his first nine games. His next walk-on-water moment could come this week.

Counting an Aug. 1 loss at Kansas City before Showalter took over, the Orioles are 12-9 this month heading into the final seven August games — three at the Chicago White Sox, three at the Los Angeles Angels and one at home against the Boston Red Sox.

If the Orioles win three of those, they'll guarantee their first victorious August in 13 years.

"It's important to win any month, but especially toward the end of the season when it is getting long and especially in the situation we are in," Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis said. "We've got a great group of guys, young talented baseball players, and everybody is here for a reason. And I think people are starting to see what we are capable of doing."

The reasons for the Orioles' late-season swoons are well-documented. Because of the unbalanced schedule, they play a high percentage of their final games against divisional rivals in the ultra-competitive American League East, clubs that are often pushing for a postseason spot.

Also, with a perennially thin roster, the Orioles traditionally call up minor league reinforcements well before rosters expand in September, and those young players are often running out of gas as the season advances. And, as much as players hate to acknowledge it, motivation and focus can wane when there is nothing to play for in the stretch run.

Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, a 10-season veteran, hasn't experienced a winning year — or a winning August — in his career. He has heard the reasons and says there might be some merit to each. But he said the disastrous finishes ultimately boil down to one obvious cause.

"We just weren't as good as the teams we were playing. That's probably it as much as anything," Roberts said. "Other than that, yeah, there are always injuries or it may be this or that, but over a 10-year stretch, it has got to be something deeper. … We are playing in our division a lot those last few months, like we always do, and our division is pretty good. And if you are not good, you are going to have trouble."

Roberts believes a strong finish now could be essential for the future because it could show the younger players that they can compete with their divisional opponents, and that could have a carryover for next year.

He points to the San Diego Padres, who were 20 games under .500 and in last place in 2009 heading into August. They went 33-25 from that point on and kept the momentum going this year. They have the National League's best record and were leading the NL West by six games entering Monday.

"I think it is important [to finish strong], yeah, I definitely do. I think it is important going into the offseason. I think it is important leading into next year," Roberts said, "I think it is important for the younger guys, who haven't maybe experienced a full season, to play well at the end of the year and understand what it takes to do that."

To be a continually successful team, Showalter said, it should be a given that players expect to succeed in the season's last two months. As an example, he uses the young corps of New York Yankees in the mid-1990s — Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera — who assumed a pennant race and a postseason berth were the norms.

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