BALTIMORE, AUG. 29 -- Virtually every day for 3 1/2 weeks, Baltimore Orioles Manager Frank Robinson has been asked if his team has seemed flat. Each time, Robinson has launched into a small tirade in which he reduces the Orioles' recent losing ways to their simplest components.
"Flat has nothing to do with it," he said this week in one rendition of the now-familiar refrain. "Being flat means going out there on the field and just going through the motions. We're not just going through the motions.
"The problem has been that we're not doing the things you need to do to win ballgames. We're not pitching, we're not hitting and we're not fielding. We do maybe one or two of those things well a night, but it's not enough. A lot of nights we don't do any of them well. . . . We're just not a very good ballclub right now."
That part of the equation has been evident. Following tonight's 3-2 loss to the Yankees, Baltimore has lost five straight and 11 of 14. To make matters worse, they announced before the game that ace reliever Gregg Olson would be sidelined at least a week with a sore right elbow.
The Orioles are 6-16 since they last were at the .500 mark, and they have dropped to fifth place and 12 1/2 games behind the front-running Boston Red Sox in the American League East -- their largest deficit since they finished the 1988 season 34 1/2 games behind.
The Orioles entered this month only four games out of first place and on the heels of their best July in seven seasons. Expectations were high, especially considering the forgiving nature of the AL East.
After their miraculous season last year in which they battled the Toronto Blue Jays until the final weekend, the Orioles fast-forwarded a long-range blueprint for building a contender in time for the opening of their Camden Yards stadium in 1992. They entered August this year with another chance to win the division well ahead of schedule.
But their plummet has been so alarmingly complete that some in the organization are questioning whether the Orioles' recovery remains on course. Skids such as these are enough to make almost anyone wonder. Deficiencies that formerly were at least partially hidden have become glaringly evident.
Injuries have played a major part in the Orioles' demise, but Robinson said: "That's what you have other people on your ballclub and in your organization for. That's no excuse."
"We were kind of in a comfort zone, I guess," said first baseman Randy Milligan, who's on the disabled list with a slightly separated left shoulder. "We had our problems. But we were still in the race, so I guess we kind of overlooked them. . . . You know what they say: 'You're never as good as you look when you win, and you're never as bad as you look when you lose.' We can't be this bad."
The Orioles previously weren't winning as much as they were contending by default. So they have reason to fear their situation potentially could be as bad as it now looks.
The Orioles never resembled an offensive juggernaut this year, but their hitting in the past few weeks has been reduced to an eventless pastime between trips to the field. They have reached double figures in hits in three of 25 games this month, batting .222 over the last 22 games.
They have homered in seven of 21 games since Milligan was sidelined, and they have one home run with a man on base in 27 days. They are zero for their last 27 with runners in scoring position and have left a league-leading 1,006 men on base.
Most discouragingly, Robinson and his coaches say they haven't seen the development from their young players they expected. Brady Anderson has leveled off after a torrid stretch, and fellow outfielders Steve Finley and Mike Devereaux haven't added consistency to their flashes of brilliance, and third baseman Craig Worthington has become a large question mark again as he struggles through a .211, eight-homer campaign.
"Some of these guys should be further along toward becoming comfortable as major league hitters by now," batting coach Tom McCraw said. "That's what's discouraging -- not necessarily the lack of everyday production, but the lack of progress. We need these people to step forward and show us they're on their way to becoming the hitters we believe they can be."
Only Billy and Cal Ripken have produced consistently during the rut. Catcher Mickey Tettleton hasn't hit a home run in nearly six weeks and seems to set another record for strikeout proficiency every day. Ron Kittle has two RBI in 14 games since being acquired in a trade for outfielder Phil Bradley.
Among the procession of first basemen the Orioles have tried as replacements for Milligan, Sam Horn is five for his last 38 and rookie David Segui is yet to prove he can hit major league pitching; Chris Hoiles was returned to Class AAA Rochester.
"We have a very fine line between being reasonably productive offensively and just doing nothing at all," Robinson said. "We're not an explosive team, by any means. We need to plug away at you, and we haven't done that this year. We haven't been able to get the timely hits all season, and the problem has just worsened these past few weeks."
The club's pitchers have shared the blame. Baltimore's team ERA over the six games before tonight was 8.06. The starting rotation of the future -- Ben McDonald, Anthony Telford, Pete Harnisch and perhaps Jose Mesa -- is in place, and the Orioles know their youngsters will take some lumps while they learn.
The club's once-airtight fielding also has faltered, and mishaps in fundamentals have become a near-daily occurrence. The slide seems to have made Orioles officials realize that a future they once regarded as unfailingly promising does have its uncertainties.
The young pitchers remain a source of optimism. McDonald plans to add a forkball to his repertoire, and he appears to be on track to fulfilling the enormous expectations that accompanied his rise to the majors. Telford will be a favorite for a spot in the rotation next spring, and the Orioles are confident Harnisch will overcome inconsistency to become a top-line starter.
Mesa and his 90-plus mph fastball present possibilities, and Bob Milacki, John Mitchell and 11-game winner Dave Johnson are in the fold. Curt Schilling has excelled in relief and is itching to be returned to a starting role. Fireballing left-hander Arthur Lee Rhodes and this year's top draft pick, Mike Mussina, may be ready to challenge for roster spots next year.
Free agent Tettleton appears more likely to leave than to return. The club has choices to make about Kittle and reliever Joe Price, both of whom have option years in their contracts upcoming. A normally crucial evaluation period for young prospects -- the month following Sept. 1 roster expansion -- has been interrupted by the Orioles' promise to Rochester to leave the Red Wings roster untouched during the International League playoffs.
The Orioles finally seemed convinced that significant offseason reshuffling is required. General Manager Roland Hemond is not one to tip his hand, but the Orioles are almost certain to try to package one of their young pitchers and one of their young outfielders in an attempt to get a power hitter.
Robinson has pledged he'll continue managing "until the job is done." That seems further off than it appeared only months ago, but he insists he's not discouraged.
"We'll get there," Robinson said. "It may take longer than we were led to believe by what we did last year, but we'll get there."