The Baltimore Orioles know only one thing for certain: Someone among them is to blame for the destruction of their season, which reached a new low today with a 6-5 loss to the New York Yankees, the Orioles' 10th loss in a row.
But beyond that fact, there is only finger-pointing and internal divisiveness. Today's loss may have been the worst yet. The Orioles led 5-3 entering the ninth inning, only to see co-closer Arthur Rhodes give up a three-run home run to Scott Brosius, sending the crowd of 42,869 into convulsions of joy.
As Brosius's towering homer, which came on a 2-1 fastball down the middle, landed in the left field stands, Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken watched to make sure Brosius touched every base, then led his teammates off the field to another somber round of soul-searching.
The Orioles' reactions ranged from anger to frustration to numbness. Asked how devastating the loss was, Manager Ray Miller said, "No worse than the other 18."
Miller was referring to the team's blown saves, a total that reached 19 today. It also was the fifth time during this 10-game losing streak that the Orioles' bullpen has either blown a lead or surrendered the tiebreaking run. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has just one blown save this season.
"You get upset, frustrated," catcher Charles Johnson said. "It's been happening so much. Everyone's looking around like, `What in the world is going on?' "
Today's implosion wasted a strong, seven-inning performance from Orioles starter Sidney Ponson, back-to-back homers by Albert Belle and Harold Baines in the fourth off Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez, and a two-out, two-run double by B.J. Surhoff off Mike Stanton in the seventh, which broke a 3-3 tie.
Rhodes, who has been splitting closer duties with Mike Timlin, came in to pitch the ninth after left-hander Doug Johns made it through a scoreless eighth. Miller said he gave no thought to leaving Johns in the game because Johns "did what he was supposed to do."
Rhodes immediately gave up a single to center to Chili Davis, whose sinking liner Brady Anderson couldn't quite get to despite a diving try. Then, after getting ahead of Jorge Posada with two strikes, Rhodes issued a walk.
Rhodes struck out pinch hitter Luis Sojo for the first out, but left a 2-1 fastball over the plate to Brosius, the 1998 World Series MVP.
"It was a predictable count," Johnson said. "He can't afford to walk another guy. We had to go at him and hope he popped something up. When you get behind, it's tough. As the catcher, it hurts me as much as Arthur because we're trying to get guys out."
Rhodes initially declined to comment, but later told reporters, "Blame it on the [expletive] bullpen, like always. . . . Every time something goes wrong, it's the bullpen's fault. So blame this on the bullpen."
Implied by Rhodes's tone was the fact that some members of the bullpen are fed up with what they perceive as Miller falsely blaming them for the bullpen's performance this season, which includes a 6.02 ERA, worst in the majors. Today, as Rhodes pitched the ninth, Miller had rookie Gabe Molina warming up for a third time.
According to some relievers, Miller's mishandling of the bullpen is more to blame. After the club placed right-hander Ricky Bones on the disabled list Friday night with arm fatigue, one pitcher said Bones's arm is tired because Miller often asked Bones to warm up three or more times in a game. Bones "has pitched more innings in the bullpen than in the game," the player said. "And so has [Scott] Kamieniecki."
Before today's game, however, Miller recalled some words of wisdom he received early in his coaching career: "You're only as good as the guy standing on the hill." And he laid the blame for the bullpen's problems on the pitchers themselves.
"I would never compare myself to Davey Johnson or Jim Leyland, but all of a sudden Davey is a dummy because [his pitchers] can't keep the ball in Chavez Ravine, and Jimmy all of a sudden isn't smart because he can't find anybody to pitch at 6,000 feet [altitude].
"It's a very hard thing. You try not to give up on people, you try to believe in them, put your arm around their shoulder. . . . [But] when you lose games you're supposed to win, it's absolutely crippling."
After today's loss, Miller said the only thing left to try is to use Molina, who was recalled Friday night when Bones was placed on the disabled list, as the closer. "And if he doesn't do the job, we'll try someone else," Miller said. "We have to have someone who can close ballgames."
Still others would blame General Manager Frank Wren, who allowed bullpen stalwart Alan Mills to depart as a free agent and who committed four years and $16 million to Timlin, who has eight of the Orioles' 19 blown saves. A source familiar with the thinking of team majority owner Peter Angelos said Wren, pitching coach Bruce Kison and Miller are all in danger of losing their jobs.
Until this point, the Orioles have not given up the fight. But the toll of these losses may be showing. Miller praised his team's play, but wondered, "How many times you can get hit like that?" And Ripken admitted it gets harder to come back each time.
"You can't help but have some carry-over when you're part of a situation where things are going the way they've been going for us," Ripken said. "But we have to find a way to wipe the slate clean after today and start a new day tomorrow."
"You can't change the reality. It's not pleasant. It's not fun. There's a lot of frustration involved. But you can't change it."
CAPTION: The Orioles wasted another strong outing from Sidney Ponson, who pitched seven innings and left with a 5-3 lead.