Blue Jays 8, Orioles 5
Late summer at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The weather takes a beautiful, cool turn toward fall. The Baltimore Orioles begin their inevitable crash. And the occupant of the manager's office in the home clubhouse removes his cap, runs his fingers through his hair and sighs deeply. Happens every year.
An 8-5 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday afternoon -- in which the Orioles trailed by six runs early, then brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth inning only to fall tantalizingly short -- completed a wretched homestand and brought the Orioles (57-65) to the precipice of a cliff they have gone over before.
"I never saw it coming," veteran first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said of the 0-6 homestand that came on the heels of the team's best stretch of the season. "We were on a high. It's incredible how baseball is."
If Palmeiro was truly caught off guard, it is because he has not been around the last couple of summers, each of which has featured a stunning collapse that occurred at the exact instant the team reached its season pinnacle.
In 2002, the Orioles pulled to 63-63 on Aug. 23 -- their first time at .500 in more than three months -- only to go 4-32 the rest of the way. Last season, they topped out at 57-59 on Aug. 10, then lost their next eight and finished with a 71-91 record.
Those collapses were cited as primary reasons the Orioles fired manager Mike Hargrove at the end of last season, believing a manager with more "fire" would prevent such a thing from happening again.
Which brings us to the current occupant of the manager's office, Lee Mazzilli.
A week ago Sunday, the Orioles were wrapping up a 4-2 road trip with the type of win that often serves as a landmark for a team turning its season around -- an 11-7 victory at Toronto in which the Orioles trailed by six runs. It was the team's 11th win in 13 games , and it drew them within two games of .500, at 57-59. Players began talking openly about their wild-card hopes.
But by late Sunday afternoon, following the team's sixth straight loss and having just seen another talented young pitcher -- left-hander Erik Bedard -- fall apart before the game was halfway over, Mazzilli appeared as frustrated as he has all season.
Bedard was "behind hitters. Again. When you get ahead of a hitter 0-2, then get to 3-2 and [give up] a home run, that's no good," Mazzilli said, describing the sequence that produced Eric Hinske's three-run homer in the second inning. "You can't do it in this league. You have to put guys away early. . . . We can't keep using five pitchers every game."
The late-season digressions of Bedard (5-8) and right-hander Daniel Cabrera -- the team's two most promising young pitchers -- represent perhaps the most disturbing trend for the Orioles at present. Both have pitched more innings than in any other season in their careers and may be showing the effects.
"I have no idea," said a perplexed Bedard, when asked what might be behind his acute slump, which has produced a 1-4 record and a 6.90 ERA in his last six starts.
Bedard, Cabrera and Dave Borkowski -- the Orioles' three starters in this series -- lasted a combined 92/3 innings while giving up 20 runs, which computes to an 18.62 ERA.
This homestand began with three straight losses to the American League West-leading Oakland Athletics. The Blue Jays, though, were in last place in the East. These six straight losses -- in which they were outscored by an aggregate score of 51-17 -- have loosened the Orioles' grip on third place, as they lead fourth-place Tampa Bay by two games and last-place Toronto by six.
"The way we played in that last game in Toronto," said Orioles left fielder David Newhan, "you'd think we'd respond after that, or that the momentum would just carry us. I don't know what happened."
After Bedard put the Orioles in another huge hole, the Orioles nearly produced a repeat of last Sunday's cathartic win north of the border. Trailing 8-3, Newhan singled, Melvin Mora doubled, and Miguel Tejada drove them both in with a double down the third base line -- all against right-hander Vinnie Chulk.
With one out, Blue Jays Manager John Gibbons summoned closer Jason Frasor, who loaded the bases on a pair of walks, before getting Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons to line out to right to end the game -- with Blue Jays right fielder Alexis Rios making a daring, diving catch.
Gibbons, a veteran of the last two Orioles collapses, put forth the company line when asked whether history may be repeating itself. "It's a different team," he said. "A week and a half ago, we were the hottest team in baseball. This was just a rough homestand."
And now, the Orioles go back on the road to face their biggest test of the season: a two-week road trip against three contending teams (Oakland, Texas and New York) and the team trying to catch them (Tampa Bay.) "There's still a long way to go," said Tejada.
Except now, one wonders whether that's a good thing, or a bad one.
Orioles Notes: Tejada will make his much-anticipated return to Oakland -- where he starred for six years -- on Monday and said he is not concerned about how he will be greeted by local fans. "I don't think about that," he said. "I don't play for Oakland no more.". . .
With his bullpen perilously thin, Mazzilli called on Borkowski for 11/3 innings of relief, making it unlikely Borkowski can make his scheduled start Wednesday night. Mazzilli said he is undecided how to handle that start.