By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; D6
It would be better for all concerned amongst the Baltimore Orioles, even for Buck Showalter himself, if the two defining story lines of their season's second half - the change in the manager's office that brought Showalter to Baltimore, and the stunning turnaround in the quality of the Orioles' play - did not coincide quite so precisely, tracing back to the same date of origin: Aug. 3.
Because the two do coincide - with the Orioles, after spending the first four months of the season as the unquestioned worst team in baseball, suddenly a winning team under Showalter - there is an undercurrent of intrigue, an uncomfortable question, to what would otherwise be a decidedly uplifting story.
The question is this: If Showalter, who was 11-6 at the helm following a 4-0 victory over Texas in a series opener on Thursday, has indeed flipped a switch that has caused the Orioles to play inspired baseball all of a sudden - well, why was that switch "off" in the first place?
It is a question the Orioles, even as they embrace the refreshing feeling of winning, wrestle with themselves.
"If you watch our team closely, you see there's a little more attention to detail," said veteran pitcher Mark Hendrickson, "and the focus in every aspect has improved tremendously. [A managerial change] sometimes is maybe what it takes to do that. But if someone says that [focus] should have been there all along, that's a fair point.
"When you have a team this young, [losing] can have a snowball effect, and you just can't stop it."
Indeed, the Orioles' transformation under Showalter has been nothing short of remarkable. Under Dave Trembley (15-39 before being fired on June 4) and Juan Samuel (17-34 as interim manager), the Orioles were 20 games out of first place by early June, and on pace for a 113-loss season. But under Showalter, the Orioles immediately went on their best run of the season, winning eight of their first nine games - including three on walk-off hits.
Even when the Orioles lose these days - as they had in four of their previous five games before Thursday's victory - they do so in compelling fashion.
On Wednesday night in a 6-5 loss to Seattle, they brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, each time falling just one big hit short.
"It's not a coincidence we've turned it around since Buck showed up," veteran pitcher Jeremy Guthrie told reporters last week. "We know what he expects. No magic formula, but maybe just a good shift in gears for us."
Added Hendrickson: "There could be a little bit of a fear thing. We have a lot of young guys here. It's not a knock on the previous managers, because we had great relationships with both of them. But you bring someone new in, and all [the players] know is what they hear, and there's a little bit of fear there. Sometimes that works well for young guys."
Even Showalter has to tread carefully with what he says, so as not to offend his predecessors - nor question the effort his own players gave under those predecessors. Instead of detailing what he thinks occurred under Trembley and Samuel, Showalter speaks in generalities about how difficult baseball is.
"You've got to keep the snowball from happening in the major leagues," Showalter said. "You play so many games and you've got to always stop that snowball and get it moving in the other direction and make sure it doesn't run over you. Your attitude should never go in a slump. Your effort should never go in a slump. There are certain absolutes that you control."
It's also true that the managerial change was not the only recent development that might have affected the Orioles' quality of play. In recent weeks the Orioles have seen three critical players - left fielder Felix Pie (July 6), left-hander Mike Gonzalez (July 22) and second baseman Brian Roberts (July 23) - return from lengthy stays on the disabled list.
But the fact is, the Orioles' turnaround didn't begin on July 6 or July 22 or July 23. It began, quite obviously, on Aug. 3, when Showalter - formerly of the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks and Texas Rangers, and most recently of ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" - met briefly with his new charges in the home clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, then managed his first big league game in nearly four years.
It wasn't as if Showalter burst into the Orioles' clubhouse and started flipping over tables and foaming at the mouth. He didn't have to. His reputation - as a stickler for preparedness and attention to detail, and a my-way-or-the-highway leader - preceded him. For a team on which only four players (Roberts, Gonzalez, right fielder Nick Markakis and lefty Brian Matusz) are on guaranteed contracts beyond 2010, the hiring of Showalter through the 2013 season was a clear sign the manager now has more juice than the players.
"I think a big part of it is [the fact that] there are a lot of guys here who realize this is going to be the manager here for a while," said all-star infielder Ty Wigginton. "There were always rumblings about Trembley, and obviously Juan had the interim tag. But Buck is going to be here a while."