By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008
BALTIMORE, Sept. 28 -- Baltimore sealed its fate as the new doormat of the powerful American League East on Sunday with a 10-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, the final piece of the Orioles' first last-place finish in 20 years.
Outmatched and outmanned on the mound over the second half the season, the Orioles limped to their second-worst September since the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1954. Their 5-20 record was the worst since a 4-24 mark in the final month of the 2002 season.
"We've really struggled," said Andy MacPhail, who oversaw a 68-93 campaign in his first full year as team president. "The pitching has pretty much disintegrated. Being here now for a complete season, I think I start to understand why these things happen to a degree. You go through the American League East for a third time. There are no easy teams in this division."
The Orioles finished with the third-worst divisional record of any team in the game since the 2001 season, when Major League Baseball adopted the unbalanced schedule. At 22-50 against the AL East this year, Baltimore was just barely better than the 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks (21-55 in the NL West) and 2001 Los Angeles Angels (17-41 in the AL West).
Indeed, even in its darkest days, Tampa Bay never fared worse than this year's Orioles against the AL East, which only illustrates how much ground the organization must cover if it hopes to avoid a 12th straight losing season.
"No doubt about it," Brian Roberts said of the division. "It is for sure, it's not getting any easier."
Said veteran Aubrey Huff, "This is by far the toughest pitching division in baseball if you ask me."
The point was made repeatedly over the last six weeks.
On Aug. 17, the Orioles finished taking a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers, pulling to within two games of the .500 mark. Indeed, despite trading away Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada in the offseason, the Orioles had appeared to escape the grim preseason predictions of media outlets around the country.
"I think we really excelled and played beyond what anybody would have anticipated, myself included," MacPhail said.
But those three days in Detroit were the last in which the Orioles resembled the team that overachieved for the first 4 1/2 months of the season. From that point, the Orioles won just seven of their last 37 games. Of those games, 25 were against AL East opponents. The Orioles won just three.
"In this division, there's not a slouch on the schedule," said Kevin Millar, a free agent who may have played his final game for the Orioles.
Jeremy Guthrie, the only bright spot of the Orioles' rotation, allowed three runs in four innings in the final game of the season. It was his first start after missing nearly a month with fatigue and soreness in both his arm and shoulder.
"You just try to go through the season and give your team a chance to win," said Guthrie (10-12, 3.63 ERA). "Now you can look back and see there were some improvements, and hopefully I can continue to improve on those types of things."
But even an offense that showed more power than expected, and produced consistently after a slow start, could not rescue the Orioles from their pitching struggles. Plagued by injuries, the pitching staff finished with a 5.10 team ERA, ranking behind only the Texas Rangers for worst in the league.
Next week, Orioles officials will gather in Florida to ponder a familiar question: How will they fashion a pitching staff strong enough to compete in the treacherous AL East?
But on Sunday, the priority was on doing the things associated with the end of another miserable season.
A fan carried a sign that read "See you in Fort Lauderdale." Guthrie blasted Semisonic's "Closing Time" in the clubhouse. Players filled moving boxes next to their lockers.
"I'm kind of where I was last year," Orioles Manager Dave Trembley said. "When I walk out this door tonight, and I get in my car, and I go to my apartment, and I get on a plane tomorrow to go to home to Daytona Beach, this season is over."