Peter Schmuck: These Orioles suddenly resemble the 2005 bunch

'05 O's contended into midseason before injuries and off-field problems sent them into a freefall

June 05, 2012|Peter Schmuck

Though it certainly must seem longer, it was just a couple of weeks ago that everyone was drawing comparisons between the surprising Orioles of 2012 and the team that enchanted Baltimore during the magical "Why Not?" season of 1989.

Now, that's starting to feel like a cruel joke.

The Orioles appear to be in full retreat after a two-week slump that has knocked them off the top of the American League East standings and still threatens to send them quickly to the bottom of their tightly packed division.

It's not hard to see why this is happening. They have eight players on the disabled list and a couple of young starters have run aground. The improved depth that the front office was so proud of has been stretched past the limit, and the frontline players that remain are trying so hard to make something good happen that they can't get out of their own way.

Maybe they'll get a couple of breaks in Boston and pull out of this tailspin — or at least buy some time to get a couple of the banged-up guys back — but this year suddenly looks a lot less like 1989 and a lot more like the 2005 season in which the Orioles spent more than two months in first place before coming unglued at midseason.

That season also featured the crazy week in August when Rafael Palmeiro was suspended for a positive steroid test and manager Lee Mazzilli was fired three days later, but that's a separate issue. The Orioles had fallen off the edge of the world by then.

The 2005 Orioles were only seven years removed from the franchise's most recent winning season when they sailed through the first quarter of the season and reached a season-high 14 games over .500 on May 26, but that still seemed like an eternity to a fan following that had never experienced more than three straight losing seasons since the 1950s.

The excitement built into mid-May before a devastatingly quick rash of injuries decimated the club's 25-man roster.

It started when the O's lost two outfielders on the same day, placing Sammy Sosa on the disabled list with a staph infection on May 10 and losing promising center fielder Luis Matos for six weeks when he was hit on the hand by a pitch. It became a study in crisis management two weeks later, when the club lost starting pitcher Erik Bedard (5-1, 2.08 ERA) and starting catcher Javy Lopez over a four-day period. Both would be on the disabled list until late July.

During that same week, outfielder Larry Bigbie was placed on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, leaving the front office to replace three regular outfielders on the roster over a span of 16 days.

Sound familiar? The Orioles are currently playing without two-thirds of the Opening Day outfield alignment, while two of the pitchers who were supposed to be dependable starters (Jake Arrieta and Tommy Hunter) have spun out of control and two others who were supposed to compete for places in the rotation (Zach Britton and Tsuyoshi Wada) started the season on the DL.

Under such dire circumstances, maybe Orioles fans should count their blessings, but it doesn't work that way. They were just starting to believe this year could really be different when the O's lapsed into the 3-10 skid they carried into Tuesday night's series opener at Fenway Park.

Maybe it still can, though there is little encouragement to be drawn from the comparisions to 2005. That team actually held up for another month after the roster unraveled. The '05 O's even climbed back to 14 games over .500 on June 19 before diving into a 2-11 slump that took them out of first place for good.

That club totally collapsed in late July, going into a 1-14 slide that cost Mazzilli his job. The Palmeiro scandal fractured the clubhouse, and a series of off-field incidents convinced the team to release starting pitcher Sidney Ponson on Sept. 1. Most fans probably don't even remember that the O's were still very much in contention right up until August.

Now, with the 2012 team trying to pull out of this freefall, it's all most fans can do to keep a flicker of hope alive.

They're no longer saying "Why Not?"

They're saying "What next?"

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.

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