Last month, Storm Davis and Mike Boddicker sat in the locker room in Cleveland after both had been driven to an early shower by 10 Indians runs.
"What's happened?" Boddicker asked Davis. "Last year we're two of the best pitchers in the American League. Now, it looks like we're two of the worst."
Now, as though to prove that it's darkest just before it gets black, both young Baltimore Orioles pitchers are disabled for the rest of this season.
Returning from that same road trip, Scott McGregor and Mike Flanagan sat together on the flight home and studied the baseball register. The veterans researched the careers of every recent 200-game winner to see what happened to them in their early 30's.
"They had one thing in common. At about our age, they all had a bad year," said Flanagan. "But most of them survived it and, in some cases, they won more games after that crisis than they did before it."
Learn anything else?
"Most of 'em got traded."
What's wrong with the starting pitchers who have already gotten one Orioles manager fired and spoiled what could have been a pennant-race season? And what's to be done about them?
The unanimous non-answer to the first question is, "We don't know." From top to bottom, the Orioles' brains also agree on the plan for '86: do nothing.
Everything's broke. Don't fix it.
From General Manager Hank Peters to chief scout Jim Russo to Manager Earl Weaver, the Orioles have decided: hold 'em.
At present, the Orioles' team ERA is 4.23 -- the worst since 1956. The five men in the rotation are equally guilty.
Boddicker, who won 20 in 1984, has gone 6-16 after a 6-1 start. He's lost control, nibbles to distraction and only wins when his curves are strikes. Some think Joe Altobelli burned out the delicately built right-hander, who had never gone 200 innings a year anywhere, with two years of workhorse duty.
Last Friday, the Orioles decided that Boddicker, pitching with a knee injury, a stiff shoulder and shaken confidence, was endangering his arm, so they told him to take the rest of the season off.
McGregor's ERA (4.83), home run balls (30) and 206 hits in 185 innings tell far more than his 13-12 record. Can McGregor's fast ball, jokingly called his "invisible ball" since no one knew why it didn't get clobbered, still evade bats as it did when his broken ring finger was a slightly different shape?
Storm Davis (10-8) had to pitch well for weeks to get his ERA to 4.53; he's had tremendous batting support and should have won 18. Just as he finally seemed straightened out, he was hit in the right forearm Saturday, suffered nerve and tendon damage and is gone until '86.
Dennis Martinez (12-9) is worse news. Few pitchers dare dream of getting 6.5 runs per game; Dwight Gooden might have gone 30-3 this year in his shoes. Martinez' ERA is 4.99. Weaver has sent him to the bullpen with this exhausted evaluation: "Dennis is Dennis . . . It's always something."
Mike Flanagan snapped his Achilles tendon last winter and deserves kudos for coming back this season. Still, his 4-4 record, 5.09 ERA and long history of injuries worry the Orioles greatly.
A simple dismissive evaluation of the Orioles pitching is brutally easy.
Boddicker has shot his arm with two years of double-dosage curve-balling, just like Steve Stone in 1979-'80.
McGregor never had much margin for error and now has fallen to mediocrity.
Davis idolizes the wrong Jim Palmer -- the late-career version who babied injuries, paralyzed himself with analysis and distrusted his fast ball.
Flanagan, whose only star season was '79, has too much injury and age (33) to be more than competently crafty.
Dennis is Dennis.
This worst-case view dooms the Orioles -- a team with 200-homer power, solid defense, enough speed and a decent bullpen -- to be dragged into the middle of the pack again by the same erratic pitchers who've been knocked out before the sixth inning 38 times this year, blown eight games when the team scored seven or more runs and won only eight times when given fewer than four runs.
But many of the Orioles think that their problems can be placed between their ears. These folks, with almost ideological confidence, say that the club is headed to the '86 World Series with the same starters who were the toast of the game just two years ago.
"Losing is contagious . . . (Flanagan calls it) 'a staff infection,' " says McGregor. "We haven't led each other out of the darkness . . . When it was time to reach down inside, I think we just got scared. You can't be afraid to lose.
"We all got underneath the thing. Instead of being bold and fearless, you get defensive. Then you try so hard. You start throwing to corners," says McGregor, who's been knocked out early 10 times but has won three straight (2.28 ERA) by challenging hitters once more.
"I know I put too much pressure on myself," adds McGregor, who signed a multimillion dollar contract through 1991 in February. "You get a big contract, it's hard to earn it all."
As he speaks, McGregor wears a T-shirt that the team's hitters have made up in their amazing Long Ball Year: "Dial 8 for The Dong Bros." Just as the pitchers have, collectively, dragged themselves down, the Orioles hitters have slugged above a realistic level.
"We waited 10 years for these runs. That's the shame of it," says Flanagan. "It's so frustrating."
"It was like we all had a phobia," says Davis, whose locker literature shows how desperate he's been -- "Expect to Win," "Winning Words," "Athletic Perfection."
"To guys who've never lost, the fear of failure is so great," says Davis, 23. "We've almost had to have a reconstruction of the way we used to pitch. Every time I think I've turned the corner and talk about it, I get shattered."
In his next start, Davis got shattered -- by that liner. At least Davis can spend the winter with a clear sense of what went wrong and apparent proof that he corrected it.
"I was always giving 'em a big inning because of two walks somewhere in the inning," Davis says. "Boddicker and I made a pact that day in Cleveland. We decided we couldn't let this game get to us. We had to get the ball back in the strike zone and see what happened."
Davis did it. His last seven healthy starts were the best streak of his life: 5-0, 1.35 ERA.
"If you've been aggressive, you'll get more outs even when you do get behind in the count," Davis says. "They're still defensive and they'll chase. Like Scotty says, 'Get 'em swinging and they'll keep swinging. Get 'em taking and they'll keep taking.' "
Orioles pitchers always talked about their craft, but Palmer was the discussion leader. This year he's gone. So is seven-season pitching coach Ray Miller, who might have helped get the staff stabilized faster.
"You get so bogged down in the team's failure. It's hard to put yourself above it. Cakes (Palmer) always said you had to do that," says Davis. "When I've gotten straightened out this year, it's usually been right after a phone call (from him).
"He remembered everything. He'd tell you the pattern in what you were doing wrong."
"We always had two guys on a roll," recalls Flanagan. "There was always somebody to look at who made it look easy. Then you realized it is easy. We used to be in charge. This year, it seemed like the hitters dictated to us."
One new Oriole has learned the lessons of pitching made simple -- rookie Ken Dixon (8-4). In his last 63 innings, his ERA is 1.76 and Weaver loves him. The Orioles would like to give Martinez's job to Dixon next year and use the versatile, erratic Dennis the Menace as a long reliever and spot starter.
As might be guessed, Weaver has the most long-range sanguine view. "It's still touchy," he says of his staff. "Our defensive positioning is better (since Weaver returned). Our confidence is better. That means a helluva lot. That helps control."
Nonetheless, he admits he's worried.
"You get more outs on pitches out of the strike zone than in it. We've had two guys, McGregor and Boddicker, that were especially good at setting you up and making you go fishing. I think there's been an extra conscious effort by the league to lay off bad pitches," says Weaver. "In batting practice in Oakland, Boddicker realized that the A's were throwing nothing but change-ups in BP before he pitched . . .
"They have to show that they can get 'em out within the strike zone. Can they do it? We'll have to see."
In the past, Weaver and Palmer were a sympathetic yin and yang. Palmer preached fast-ball strikes as a staple, and Weaver yelled about throwing curves for strikes in jams. They pretended it was an argument.
"Palmer's philosophy was so simple. 'I ain't throwin' a curve until somebody gets on base,' " says Weaver wistfully. "And a solo home run isn't getting on. If you give 'em up one at a time, it ain't gonna hurt you too bad."
Weaver dismisses several popular theories on the Disaster of '85.
Did the trip to Japan wear out arms? "The more you throw, the stronger you get," says Weaver.
Did the transition from Weaver to Altobelli take a toll after two years? "Our systems are almost identical, though I don't know how well the (pitching) charts were kept while I was away," says Weaver.
"Too many of our guys were falling into being two-pitch pitchers. We needed to give them something else to look for. It's always going to be a guessing game, but our pitchers weren't making the guess hard enough."
On those lines, new pitching coach Kenny Rowe taught Davis a slider. McGregor reemphasized his curve.
"They're throwin' good enough for me," says Weaver of his Big Five, plus Dixon. "If you happen to get off bad next year, you'd have to rethink things maybe around June . . . But I know they'll be back ."
"We don't have the answer," says Peters. "It's all the same disease but each patient has a different cause. It's a mystery. We see some encouraging signs here and there. But really good pitching is a question of consistency."
Strange as it seems, nothing in American team sports is more inherently inconsistent than pitching. Remember McGregor and Flanagan's record book session?
Here's what they found. Between the ages 30 to 34, these 200-game winners had the following seasons: Phil Niekro 12-18, Steve Carlton 15-14, Don Sutton 12-15, Tom Seaver 16-14, Jim Palmer 10-6, Ferguson Jenkins 17-18, Gaylord Perry 19-19, Jim Kaat 13-14, Nolan Ryan 10-13, Jerry Koosman 8-20, Luis Tiant 1-7, Catfish Hunter 9-9, Tommy John sat out a year.
A hundred more instances could be found. Who would have traded for Joaquin Andujar after he went 6-16 in 1983? Yet he's won 20 games two years in a row. Who'd have wanted Rick Sutcliffe before the '84 season? Yet he was 16-1 with the Chicago Cubs.
Any student of baseball history knows that the Orioles really have no choice.
McGregor and Flanagan have never had a losing season. Few teams have a better 23-year-old pitcher than Davis or a better prospect than Dixon. How could anyone give up on the gutty Boddicker, who was 36-19 in his first two years?
The Baseball Encyclopedia says the Orioles would be crazy to give up on the six starters they've got coming back.
That, however, won't keep the Orioles from enduring their most worrisome and insecure winter in 25 years. They're lived by pitching and now must hope that they don't die by it.