Back Home, O's Continue to Face A Rough Road
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page D01
BALTIMORE, June 21 -- At 11 a.m. Sunday, Mountain Daylight Time, the door to the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse at Denver's Coors Field closed, and Manager Lee Mazzilli stood in front of his reeling team. The seventh game of a seven-game road trip was two hours away. To that point, the trip had included six losses, eight roster moves, one players-only meeting and countless layers of intrigue.
As Mazzilli addressed his players, perhaps the rookie manager for the first time could feel his clubhouse slipping ever so slightly away from him. Back in the salad days of April and May, when the Orioles were overachieving and hanging around the division lead, it was said many times that a manager's first big test does not come until his team struggles. And that time was now.
The meeting lasted about 10 minutes, and that afternoon the Orioles trudged through eight more innings of losing baseball before Brian Roberts's grand slam with two outs in the top of the ninth inning gave them a 4-2 win over the Colorado Rockies. The win snapped a seven-game losing streak and carried the Orioles back to Baltimore to face the New York Yankees, beginning Tuesday night, with a slightly better record (28-37) and an enormously better disposition.
"We haven't quit," Roberts said. "Nobody in here is a quitter."
In the meeting, Mazzilli did little more than repeat the same kind of clichéd platitudes managers of losing clubs have been spouting for generations.
"I told the guys, 'You worry about today,' " Mazzilli said before Sunday's game. " 'You win today, and when Tuesday comes, you worry about Tuesday. What happened last week, you can't bring back.' . . . I told them I believe in them. Right now, we're having a bumpy road. There's nothing you can do about that. Just continue to be positive."
Mazzilli's unwaveringly positive attitude and back-slapping clubhouse style drew rave reviews in spring training and in the first two months of the season, but the team has lost 21 of its last 29 games.
Asked before Sunday's game about the players' view of Mazzilli at this point, one veteran said, "I think it's fine. At this level, the players understand it's about the players, not the manager. We're the ones who have to get us out of this. There's no emotion anymore on the bench. That's on us."
Still, as injuries and under-performance have shifted roles, the list of disgruntled players has grown.
Right-hander Rodrigo Lopez complained through the media about being sent back to the bullpen. Right-hander Rick Bauer bristled privately about being forced into a game in Cleveland -- the first stop on the road trip -- with only eight to 10 warmup pitches in the bullpen, then came down with a mysterious case of shoulder soreness.
Second baseman Jerry Hairston, who has devolved into a utility player with his main job still blocked by Roberts, has told friends he is upset being stuck playing positions -- such as third base and left and right field -- where he is ill-prepared and exposed.
Meantime, injuries crushed the Orioles in the latter stages of the road trip, creating a semi-comical merry-go-round of roster moves over the weekend in Denver. At one point, infielder Jose Leon was optioned to Class AAA Ottawa on Friday night (to make room for newly signed David Newhan), then was told Saturday to return to Coors Field, because he was activated again with B.J. Surhoff placed on the disabled list. The only reason Leon was still in Denver was that the red-eye flight the Orioles tried to get him on Friday night was full.
The Orioles' dramatic win on Sunday does not obscure their obvious problems and shortcomings. Prior to Roberts's game-winning swing, the team was two strikes away from being shut out for the third time in two weeks.
A recent string of five straights games against left-handed starters exposed the team's lack of right-handed bench players, especially after Melvin Mora and Luis Matos went down with injuries.
Equally concerning is a team batting average of .245 with runners in scoring position, which ranks last in the league. Shortstop Miguel Tejada, whose six-year, $72 million contract is the longest and most lucrative in team history, is hitting only .241 and has grounded into 10 double plays in those situations.
"A couple of [clutch] hits last week, and it's a whole different story," Mazzilli said. "A break here and there, and you're not even close to [being in] this situation."
It also seems clear that, in hindsight, the front office lost on its gamble to entrust the team's fate to a young starting rotation, 40 percent of which -- right-hander Kurt Ainsworth and lefty Eric DuBose -- is now on the disabled list, and the other 60 percent of which has all struggled to varying degrees.
The team still has not figured out who will take DuBose's turn in the rotation on Saturday against Atlanta. Lacking palatable options within the organization, the front office may look outside -- something it has resisted for months while vowing to let its young pitchers pitch.
And in the meantime, the Orioles own their worst 65-game record since 1999, are in last place by percentage points, and will play 17 games in the next 16 days.
"We need to play the game like we did at the beginning of season," Mazzilli said. "It's June. There's a long way to go. Things can turn around very quickly. I know we're a better club than [we were] this week. There's no question in my mind."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Manager Lee Mazzilli, left, with hitting coach Terry Crowley: "A couple of [clutch] hits last week, and it's a whole different story." The Orioles ended a seven-game losing streak Sunday and now face the Yankees.
(Preston Keres - The Washington Post)
_____Orioles vs. Yankees_____
• Where: Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore.
• When: Tonight, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:05 p.m.
• Tickets: Available for all games.
• Television: Tonight, WDCA-20, WJZ-13; Wednesday and Thursday on Comcast SportsNet.
• Radio: WTEM-980, WBAL-1090,WAGE-1200, WNAV-1430.
• Pitchers: Tonight, Orioles LHP Matt Riley (1-2, 7.11) vs. Yankees RHP Mike Mussina (7-4, 4.43). Wednesday, Orioles Erik Bedard (1-2, 4.33) vs. Yankees RHP Jon Lieber (5-4, 4.83). Thursday, Orioles RHP Sidney Ponson (3-9, 6.49) vs. Yankees RHP Javier Vazquez (7-5, 3.43).