Thrown For a Big Loss
By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page D01
BALTIMORE -- Before this season, all of baseball watched as the Orioles tried one of the bravest yet riskiest rebuilding strategies imaginable. After adding Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez to the heart of what was suddenly a respectable lineup, the Orioles chose a rotation of four inexperienced starters with a total of 10 big league victories, plus talented but often overweight Sidney Ponson. Even if a couple of the kids failed, more young arms from a minor league system rich in pitching could replace them. That was the theory at any rate.
The verdict isn't in quite yet. But it's getting closer in a hurry. And it looks more like a disaster all the time.
Ponson (3-9) has eaten everything except innings. Without a staff leader, the kid pitchers have fed on each other's insecurities as though quick knockouts were a contagious pitching disease. What seemed bold in March looks dangerously close to dumb as the Orioles find themselves 10 games under .500 for a rookie manager.
Some of the most highly touted of the young arms are still in the minors, especially John Maine. But Denny Bautista, the supposed steal in the Jeff Conine trade last season, was such a shockingly raw prospect that he was traded this week for a 37-year-old middle-innings reliever. Adam Loewen has been merely adequate at lowly Delmarva after an injury. Co-general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, both ex-pitchers themselves, are running through their list of hot prospects fairly fast with little to show for it.
Meantime, as if to show that stars aren't absolutely necessary, Tampa Bay has won a dozen games in a row while the supposedly improved Orioles, 10-4 losers to the Yankees on Tuesday night, have the second-worst record in the American League (28-38). In his four years, Mike Hargrove never had such a poor start. But the well-established Hargrove might not have been pliant enough to go along with such an extreme pitching rotation scheme even if his front office pushed it.
Most of what's wrong with the Orioles was on display in the top of the first inning at Camden Yards. A young pitcher, in this case Matt Riley, walked the first two hitters of the game (the staff walked 13 Tuesday night). Maybe he was nervous facing the Yankees. But this year an inexperienced pitcher, unaccustomed to the sight of a big league team, has started 46 of 66 Orioles games. The name could've been Kurt Ainsworth, Erik Bedard, Eric DuBose or Daniel Cabrera.
Pitching coach Mark Wiley visited the mound and appeared to give an animated rendition of the old pep talk, "Babe Ruth is dead. Throw strikes." However, Alex Rodriguez is still very much alive. Here came the predictable first-pitch fastball for a strike. There went the ball over the scoreboard for a three-run homer.
Three batters, three runs and the Orioles, in an 8-22 skid, hadn't even batted yet against Mike Mussina.
Most of what's best about the Orioles was on display in the bottom of that first inning. After the team trudged off the field, looking like nine men in search of nine cigarettes and nine blindfolds, the club's spirit revived quickly. The first two batters singled and $72 million free agent Tejada, who's on a pace for 133 RBI, hit a 420-foot homer so far over the fence Bernie Williams didn't even pretend to give chase. Three hitters: game tied. Pretty spunky.
Immediately, in the top of the very next inning, the probable resolution of this Orioles season -- the constant struggle between an ill-conceived rotation and the rest of a decent club -- became apparent. Given a fresh start, Riley allowed hits to the first two Yankees, then, on an 0-2 pitch, hung a waist-high curveball that Derek Jeter bashed into the right field bleachers for another three-run homer.
That nudged Riley's ERA near 9.00 and the team ERA over 5.50. With Ponson still "an enigma" to Manager Lee Mazzilli, many teams might tend to panic. However, while the Orioles certainly lack starting pitching, they appear to have considerable resiliency.
"You can't dwell on what you don't have. You have to concentrate on using what you do have," Mazzilli said. "Sometimes you have to lose the battle before you can win the war."
Bit by bit, Mazzilli is trying to patch together some semblance of a rotation. Rodrigo Lopez, by desperate default, will again become a starter beginning Saturday. Cabrera (3-3, 4.02 ERA) has been promising. "We need to get Sidney turned around. He's the key," said Palmeiro. "I know that he can do it because I've seen it before. He can run off eight or 10 really good starts in a row. But we all have to do better."
Despite their record, the Orioles don't lack team leaders. B.J. Surhoff called a players-only meeting last week, which focused attention on fundamentals. No team could ask for a better leader-by-example than the joyous, tough Tejada. "I try to do the same things as always -- have fun, joke around. Sometimes [when you're losing] you've got to forget about baseball," Tejada said. "Just because everybody wants to do his job so hard, we get tight. It happens to every team sometimes."
"The streaks in this game are just weird. Losing and winning both snowball. When you start winning again, it's actually hard to lose," said Jay Gibbons, a dedicated old-Orioles type who will probably someday play a Surhoff role. "When the team is going bad, you have to battle for that one extra win in a road trip or a homestand so that you can win three out of eight, not two of eight. Then when you get hot, there's less ground to make up."
The Orioles will need all their resilience with two more games against the scalding-hot Yankees. Jeter has hit in 21 straight games and gotten his average up to .255. Rodriguez, who began the year in a Bronx funk, hit two home runs and is on pace for 43.
In their own way, though at a far higher level, the Yankees are an example to the Orioles, or any team, of the way a stubborn professional refuses to accept any excuse for losing. Six weeks ago, the Yankees looked a bit old and perhaps even fragile. Now, on paper, they still have flaws and injuries. But on the field they are 44-24, the best record in the game. With their RBI leader Gary Sheffield out Tuesday night, they merely pounded out 10 runs.
"Every team goes through bad stretches every season. Guys get down on themselves," Palmeiro said. "You have to stay relaxed and positive. You'll get through it."
That's no doubt correct. But it is also true that when teams take enormous unconventional gambles, they take proportional risks. No club, especially not one like the Orioles that is flush with cash, is ever forced to start a season with an ace who's perennially overweight and four neophytes with an average of 2.5-career wins apiece. That's a huge gamble. And when it blows up, you pay a high price.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company