When a team finishes fifth one year, then finds itself in the same spot heading into the next August, maybe it's time that club stopped talking pennant and started playing better baseball.
For the Baltimore Orioles, this week's hope-squelching encounter with the Toronto Blue Jays may yet have a beneficial effect. After their 5-3 loss tonight in Memorial Stadium, which left Baltimore 11 1/2 games behind the Blue Jays, perhaps the Orioles realize how much they must improve before they can challenge the classy Canadian outfit.
"We've been through more personnel changes and distractions this season than the last 10 years put together," said veteran pitcher Mike Flanagan. "We need to concentrate on trying to get up to second place. Then we can think about first place."
With their 10th victory in 11 games, the Blue Jays pushed their American League East lead to 7 1/2 games over the New York Yankees, their biggest margin of the season. It's not just the Orioles -- who were buried under four Blue Jays home runs tonight -- who are on the brink of saying, "Wait'll next year."
This evening, the Blue Jays' No. 8 hitter, Jesse Barfield, hit his 17th and 18th home runs of the season, both off loser Dennis Martinez (7-7, 5.20 ERA) who probably has worked himself out of the starting rotation. Rance Mulliniks had a one-run homer in the first inning and George Bell a bases-empty homer off Tippy Martinez in eighth.
"Dennis? Dennis kept lettin' 'em hit the ball over the fence is what he did," said disgusted Orioles Manager Earl Weaver, who said he'll "sleep on it" before deciding when or if Martinez will get another start. "They put some cannon powder in those babies, didn't they? . . . Moon shots. A couple of 'em, the outfielders didn't even have to move."
The Orioles' only sign of life was a three-run homer by Cal Ripken in the seventh to knock out reliever Dennis Lamp. "For the first time, we seemed a little down, a little dead," said Weaver, who has a 21-22 record since his return. "Geez, have we won a game since I've been here when we scored three runs or less? Out of every 10 games, you gotta win a couple of 'em 3-2, 3-1, 3-0, 2-1. That turns a .500 team into a .600 team. We're not doing it."
The Orioles have only two low-scoring victories in Weaver's seven weeks.
The Blue Jays (64-38) won on a night when they had to start Ron Musselman, a man who hadn't pitched in 22 days and had only four career victories.
Musselman made little impression in his 3 2/3 innings compared to hulking 6-foot-6 rookie Tom Henke, who got his second major league win in his second career appearance, both of them here. "The monster man got 'em again," said Toronto Manager Bobby Cox.
As he did Monday, the thick-spectacled Henke allowed no hits in two innings and had Orioles veterans screaming, "You aren't that good" as he'd mix shoulder-high 90-mph fast balls and knee-high fork balls.
In Class AAA, Henke allowed an almost unbelievably low 18 hits in 52 innings with 58 strikeouts and had a 0.87 ERA. "I'm glad I didn't see those numbers," said Weaver. "How many guys did they have out there tonight who threw 90 miles an hour? Three in one game?"
Toronto's once-weak bullpen already was four-deep in quality arms before Henke (acquired as free-agent compensation for Cliff Johnson) arrived. "Is Toronto going to blow the league away?" said Weaver. "We'll have to wait and see . . . All I know is we still got enough games. Of course, we gotta win 'em . . .
"We're right in the thick of the pennant race until we get farther behind," said Weaver, one of whose best traits is his ability to completely ignore unpleasant facts.
Every run this muggy evening came on a homer. Mulliniks sliced his cheapie 315 feet down the left field foul line. Barfield's first, a two-run shot on a hanging curve down the pipe after Willie Upshaw's single, landed in the Blue Jays' bullpen. His homer to center in the seventh for a 4-0 lead traveled 420 feet.
The bleak joke here after that home run was that, while the Orioles plan to retire Jim Palmer's number Sept. 1, Weaver is ready to retire Dennis Martinez's number Aug. 1.
Martinez started the season with a 5-3 record and 3.64 ERA in his first 10 starts, but is 2-4 with a 7.21 ERA in his 10 starts since.
Bell's towering drive, also to center, opened the eighth and defused the excitement caused in the crowd of 32,044 by Ripken's 400-foot blow in the previous half inning after singles by Al Pardo and Alan Wiggins. Ripken completed a 26-RBI month, his best ever.
The evening's oddity was seeing Weaver get a balk call against Dennis Martinez reversed. Home plate umpire Derryl Cousins agreed to ask second base umpire Joe Brinkman for a second opinion at Weaver's request. "Now that's umpirin'," said Weaver.
The Orioles' only truly good news -- the sort that may have to give them consolation for two more months -- was that both the Yankees and Detroit Tigers lost, leaving Baltimore just four games out of second place.
In view of the way the Blue Jays crushed Orioles pitches and hopes this evening, that might be a more realistic goal than first place.
As long as no one tells Weaver, who figures, "We gotta gain a game a week on 'em in the loss column, and this week ain't over yet."