Tonight, as Ray Miller and the Baltimore Orioles entered the final weekend of their season and what could be Miller's last weekend as a major league manager, he was confronted with a cruel microcosm of his maddening season. And as the Orioles were losing tonight to the Boston Red Sox, 6-2, perhaps it occurred to Miller that the 1999 Orioles had completed a big, ugly circle.
A sudden rash of injuries to their pitching staff left the Orioles with Doug Linton on the mound against the playoff-bound Red Sox. Linton (1-4), who gave up six runs over six laborious innings, is the same journeyman right-hander who opened the season as the Orioles' fifth starter but lasted two starts before being sent down.
And typical of a season in which the Orioles' core lineup was on the field together only 11 times, tonight's makeshift lineup consisted of five regulars and four rookies. They managed only two runs off five Red Sox pitchers -- both coming home on rookie Eugene Kingsale's two-run single in the seventh. Albert Belle was robbed of a home run by center fielder Damon Buford in the second.
Asked if he was disappointed that tonight's loss guaranteed the Orioles (78-82) of a second straight losing season, Miller snapped, "My disappointment now is that I don't have [Charles] Johnson and [Cal] Ripken and all those guys back in the lineup."
Still, the Orioles have managed to go 20-9 since the end of August, and 42-31 since the all-star break, numbers that belie Miller's tenuous position. Team sources say majority owner Peter Angelos remains prepared to decline the option on Miller's contract for next season, effectively ending his term as Orioles manager.
Miller is too proud to beg for his job, but clearly he feels the Orioles' second-half play validates the job he has done -- that, given a lineup with some speed and a bullpen with some dependable arms, Miller can win with this team.
As evidence of what his team has accomplished, Miller points to numbers. Tonight, the Orioles set a team record for hits in a season (1,558). Their current batting average (.280 after tonight) is on pace to break the club record of .274, set in 1996.
Miller handed a game ball to hitting coach Terry Crowley after the game in honor of those accomplishments. "He was probably a little embarrassed," Miller said. "But he deserved it. He's worked his butt off."
Miller also expressed pride in the team's stolen-base percentages this year. The Orioles have been successful on 70.5 percent of steal attempts this year, up from 64.2 percent last year, while opponents have been successful on just 64.8 percent, down from 77.4 percent in 1998. When Boston's Donnie Sadler stole second in the eighth inning tonight, it was just the second steal allowed by the Orioles since Sept. 10.
"There's been a lot of work put into that," Miller said.
Asked if the finger of blame for the demise of the 1999 Orioles should be pointed at the pitching, Miller said, "There's no need to point fingers. It's just factual. There have been 24 games when we've scored six or more runs and lost. If you halve that or even third that, you're in the hunt."
Orioles Notes: To help alleviate the bullpen crisis, the Orioles brought up right-hander Brian Falkenborg, who was playing at the team's instructional league in Lakeland, Fla. Falkenborg, 21, made his major league debut tonight, pitching two scoreless innings. He became the 43rd player and 11th rookie to appear for the Orioles this season. . . .
Red Sox all-star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra remained in Boston to have tests done on his right wrist, which was hit by Orioles reliever Al Reyes a week ago in Boston. Garciaparra is expected to join the Red Sox Saturday, but probably will not play in the series. . . . Belle was named American League player of the month for September, during which he hit .381 with eight homers and 30 RBI.
Data: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore.
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
TV: District Cablevision, 23; Antietam Cable, 65; Jones South P.G., 33b; Jones North P.G., 18a; Jones Andrews, 6; Primestar, 183; DirecTV, 629; DISH, 424.
For other systems contact your local cable operator.
Radio: WTOP-1500, WBAL-1090, WTOP-FM-107.7, WMJS-FM-92.7.
This Season: In the final series of the season, Baltimore is 5-5 against Boston. The Orioles had outscored the Red Sox 37-33.