Against AL East Powers, Baltimore Orioles Are Taking the 'Only Way'

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 7, 2009

BALTIMORE Standing by the batting cage in Camden Yards last week, New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter told Orioles Manager Dave Trembley, "You have some really nice young players. And they play hard, too."

Trembley beamed, and said, "Thank you."

The Orioles skipper hears praise like that constantly for the six rookies who have shone brightly this season, including nearly a whole rotation of pitchers, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez, as well as potential sluggers in catcher Matt Wieters and outfielder Nolan Reimold.

Unfortunately, the Orioles still have to play the games. That's when their fantasies about the future collide with the brick wall of their still grim present. The night of Jeter's praise, the Yanks hit five homers as part of a series sweep that gave New York 10 straight wins this season over all those "really nice young players."

Ever since the All-Star Game, the Birds have been bludgeoned (16-33). The losses have actually accelerated as more farmhands were brought up and vets got traded for prospects. Now, their schedule gets even tougher with 15 games against the Yanks, Red Sox and Rays of the AL Beast, plus a couple of dental appointments with the Blue Jays' Roy Halladay.

Everywhere in Birdland you hear optimism and with cause. "We're doing it the right way," said team president Andy MacPhail, building through the minors and trades, not quick-fix free agents. "It's a good thing this way works, as the Rays and Rockies have shown recently, because for us it's also the only way."

Still, the process is painful and not even sure to work. This'll be the Orioles' 12th straight losing year, and despite their happy talk, if the Birds pull another of their late-season collapses, it could be the first of those dirty dozen seasons with more than 98 defeats. As for what they face the next month, especially with a depleted team, one Orioles veteran sums it up in a word: "Ungodly."

So, though the O's approve of Trembley's work, he's still not safe. "I've gotten a few more gray hairs," he said.

"It would be the height of unfairness to judge Dave by his schedule," said MacPhail. "We have to be objective and analytical. Do they play hard? Do we do well at the things we can control? But we'll decide nothing until the end of the year. In the past, every time we've made an announcement, the bottom falls out."

Trembley must make it to the wire without closer George Sherrill and slugger Aubrey Huff (traded), all-star Adam Jones (injured) and the two young pitching jewels, Tillman and Matusz, who'll only get a couple of more starts to prevent overwork.

If you want to feel bad for the O's, you have company. The rich Yanks and Red Sox can buy proven talent in its prime like New York's Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia. The O's have to develop unproven talent and hope that someday it becomes comparably great. Finally, the Orioles have to hope their young stars don't defect to New York someday like Mike Mussina.

Still, the Orioles managed to pull off this stunt once before -- at the beginning of the free agent era. This year reminds MacPhail, Baltimore raised, of '76, the last time this much talent arrived so fast as kids named McGregor, Flanagan, Dempsey, Dauer and two Martinezes wore the O's uniform together for the first time. The next year Eddie Murray showed up, and a pennant soon followed.

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