By Louis Berney
Last weekend's Boston massacre puts the Orioles in one of the most dismaying positions they've faced in years. And that's saying a lot for a team that has had eight consecutive losing seasons, eight successive years teeming with one disappointment piled on top of another.
The weekend of humiliation at Fenway, where the Birds were trounced in three games by the Red Sox by a combined score of 25-9, sent the message to Oriole fans that, although it's only May, this team offers little hope for the coming months. Two of the three games at Fenway were over before the third inning. Oriole pitching faltered and Oriole bats were moribund.
Quite clearly, the Orioles did not belong on the same field as the Red Sox. "They were able to hit and pitch better," third baseman Melvin Mora said, stating the obvious. The Orioles now are 1-8 this season against the Yankees and Red Sox, the two premier teams in their division. Even the most delusional Baltimore fan now must concede that the Yankees and the Red Sox play on a completely different plateau than the Orioles.
"We need to find a way to change things and get going as a team," said Kevin Millar. "We're too good a team to snowball like this…there's no excuses. We have to play better ball."
That's what a lot of Orioles were saying in the somber club house, after being handed their first winless road trip to more than one city (they also lost two in Texas) since 2003.
That's what players are supposed to say after getting whumped, what they have to say. But the sad truth is beginning to emerge that the Orioles really aren't a good team. And regardless of how hard they try to pull together, they just might not be able to play much better ball this season.
The numbers from Boston weave a tale of woe.
After the team's two most effective starters this season, Kris Benson and Eric Bedard, got sliced, diced and barbecued by Bosox batsmen over the weekend, not a single member of the Oriole rotation had an ERA under 4.50. The bullpen, described by one prominent Oriole at the end of spring training as the worst he's ever seen, has been incendiary. Relievers have been added and dropped from the roster as fast as the Orioles have slipped to the lower depths of the AL East. The full pitching staff has the second worst ERA in the major leagues.
Closer Chris Ray has been superlative, but on a bad team, the closer has little real value. There just aren't that many games for a closer to sew up.
Then there's the defense.
The Orioles have the worst fielding percentage (.981) in the American League. And they are not just statistically bad. They are a sloppy and fundamentally unsound defensive team. The Orioles of the glory days in the 1970s used to wait for opposing teams to beat themselves. This 2006 Oriole edition beats itself.
On offense, the Orioles are inconsistent and nonproductive. They lead the American League in runners left on base, signaling a clear lack of clutch hitting. They are impatient at the plate and do little to move runners into scoring position. Only two teams in the league have walked fewer times than Oriole batters, and only one team has fewer sacrifice bunts. Five of the nine starters in Sunday's game against Boston were batting .231 or less.
Some players point to the injuries the Orioles have suffered early in the season as a reason for their struggles. And it certainly is true that Brian Roberts' absence has been grievous. In his first nine games out of the lineup, the Orioles won only a single game. And the substitute lead-off batters in those nine games have hit a combined .115 (4-for-35) with but one run scored and two RBIs.
Yet virtually all teams suffer critical injuries during a season. The good ones can compensate for the absence of key players. The bad ones can't. It's clear which category the Orioles fall into.
Former manager Davey Johnson pointed out that it is only May, and a team can turn its fortunes around pretty quickly. And the old baseball shibboleth that a team is never as bad as it looks when it's losing is certainly true.
The Orioles now face scaling a wall of sheer ice as high as Mt. Everest if they want to convince their hometown rooters that 2006 is not already a lost season.
Last year's collapse and disintegration after the Orioles had led the AL East for 62 days foisted tremendous pressure on this year's team to look good coming out of the gate. Instead, the Orioles look bedraggled and inept.
"We need to figure it out," the somber Mora observed in the clubhouse at Fenway last Sunday.
Even Einstein might have trouble calculating that equation.
Issue 1.3: May 11, 2006