With the season approaching its final month, a great deal of the Baltimore Orioles' time seems to be given to waiting. Waiting for injuries to heal and milestone chases to resume. Waiting for September to come and infuse the clubhouse with new blood. And yes, waiting for this trying season to come to a merciful end.
With tonight's 6-0 loss to the Kansas City Royals in front of 13,246 at Kauffman Stadium, the Orioles completed the first leg of this joyless seven-game road trip with a 2-2 series split against the bargain-basement Royals. Royals starter Jay Witasick (5-10), who had lost his last four decisions, blanked the Orioles on four hits for the first shutout of his career.
For the Orioles, the loss did not represent so much another game dropped in the standings -- they are now only a half-game ahead of last-place Tampa Bay -- but another step toward the finish line. Thirty-five games and counting.
Tonight, the Orioles' waiting game put them in danger of having nobody to start Friday night in Detroit in place of injured ace Mike Mussina, and forced their most promising young pitcher to absorb a rude beating.
As of game-time tonight, the Orioles still had not decided on Friday's starter. But Sidney Ponson (11-9) endured seven shaky innings tonight, giving up 10 hits and six earned runs, an effort that will allow the Orioles to cover Friday night's game with the bullpen.
"Their guy [Witasick] threw everything eight inches off the plate," said Manager Ray Miller, "and our guy [Ponson] threw it right down the middle."
"Basically," Ponson said, "I stunk."
After the game, Miller said Doug Johns will start Friday night's bullpen marathon.
For a team whose precipitous downfall was largely the result of a bullpen that was overtaxed, miscast and just plain lousy in April and May, the decision to go with a bullpen start rather than calling up a true starter has ominous overtones, which Miller seems to recognize.
"That's what we have to do," Miller grumbled, "so that's what we'll do."
The additions of Jim Corsi and Al Reyes finally have given the Orioles the necessary middle-relief manpower to bridge from the starting rotation to the late-inning setup/closer corps, and the resulting stabilization of the bullpen is reflected in the numbers.
The bullpen blew a staggering 20 saves before the all-star break, but has blown only one since. In its last 31 games, the bullpen has an earned run average of 3.02. Not coincidentally, the Orioles are four games over .500 since July 9.
That is why Miller has lobbied for the Orioles to call up starting pitcher to fill in for Mussina, rather than covering those innings with the delicate bullpen.
"I'm kind of upset," Miller said today, "because we've gone from 12th in the league in pitching to fifth, and this is the first time in two years I've had some semblance of a sixth-seventh-eighth-ninth-inning bullpen setup, and I don't want to mess with that."
If the Orioles make it through this weekend in one piece, they can coast downhill the last month. September brings the promise of youth, if nothing else.
General Manager Frank Wren has said the Orioles will add as many as eight minor leaguers when rosters expand Sept. 1, which will bring first baseman Calvin Pickering, center fielder Eugene Kingsale, second baseman Jerry Hairston and shortstop Jesse Garcia to the Orioles, and possibly pitchers Terry Burrows, Calvin Maduro and Gabe Molina, and catcher Tommy Davis.
However, Matt Riley, the Orioles' prized pitching prospect, likely will not be called up. Today's announcement that Riley, 20, will pitch in the Arizona Fall League means another two months of pitching for him. With concern growing within the organization about the toll on Riley's arm, the Orioles appear inclined to give him September off.
Aside from an infusion of prospects, September also promises to bring a run at some important personal milestones for Cal Ripken, who remains on the disabled list one homer shy of 400 and 32 hits shy of 3,000. In addition, once Mussina returns he likely will have six or seven starts in which to try for five more wins and the first 20-win season of his career.