As the Baltimore Orioles struggle to recover from their devastating 2-8 road trip to Detroit, New York, and Seattle, the team’s magic number is 25 percent, squared.
It wasn’t the Orioles’ eight-game losing streak that moved the Birds into an outer orbit of the American League East pennant race. It was the injuries that led to the losing streak that dropped the Orioles six-and-a-half games out of first place. Until August, the Birds improved virtually every time a player went down. But the Orioles finally ran out of luck and into some injuries they couldn’t overcome. Six players, nearly 25 percent of the roster, wound up on the disabled list before the carnage had stopped.
In the depths of the losing streak, the Orioles’ disabled list included their best starting pitcher, their ace reliever, their best power hitter, and their third baseman, plus their triple-threat rookie outfielder and mystery millionaire/victim Glenn Davis.
“We played the best we could with the guys we were able to have out there,” Oriole Manager John Oates says of his road-killed team.
It’s an honored sports cliché that you shouldn’t use injuries as an excuse. But for the Orioles, the injury factor became inescapable. To attribute their losing streak to anything but missing bodies, perhaps with the snowball effect of three bone-crushing defeats in Detroit, is to look beyond the primary cause. The Orioles lost games in early innings because their starters got torched; two of those infernos might not have occurred with a fit Mike Mussina taking his regular turn. They lost games late, as Oates tried to cover for his burned-out bullpen, and for the lack of his closer, Gregg Olson. They lost games because they could not manufacture a run, something Jeffrey Hammonds can do better than anyone else on the club as it is currently constituted. Those same tight games could have also been won with a Chris Hoiles or Leo Gomez long ball. There’s little honor in ignoring those obvious truths.
By the time the Orioles returned home last weekend, Mussina was back on the mound and getting a win. Hoiles was swinging a bat and expecting to return by the start of the next series. Hammonds’ neck was responding to treatment, and Olson had been cleared to throw. The Orioles were recovering.
Mussina’s triumphant return last Friday also helped the Orioles bridge a potentially delicate situation uneventfully. Returning Mussina to the rotation required dropping a starting pitcher. Opening-day starter and designated veteran staff-leader Rick Sutcliffe, with one win and an ERA near 8.00 since his last start in June, was the obvious candidate for demotion. Still, taking the king off the hill could have been devastating; Oates reportedly (source: Sutcliffe) calls his talk with Sutcliffe the second-toughest task of his career after firing (that is, offering a reassignment to) Cal Ripken Sr. The Orioles were lucky that Mussina was the pitcher moving back into the rotation; had it been, say, Fernando Valenzuela or Jamie Moyer, management might have been tempted to carry Sutcliffe a little longer.
The Orioles were even more fortunate that the pitcher taking the demotion was Sutcliffe.
“Johnny didn’t put me there as much as I did with my performances,” Sutcliffe says of his move to the bullpen. “I totally understand, and I want to help this club win as much as anybody.” A class act since he made the rounds of children’s-hospital wards before he ever threw a pitch for the O’s, Sutcliffe admits that he’s not sure he’ll try again next year if he doesn’t straighten himself out over the final six weeks.
That 25 percent of the season is still to be played offers hope that the Orioles will repair the damage to their record. When the team returned to Baltimore, they had 41 games—just over a quarter of the schedule—remaining. Despite the beatings they took, the Orioles did not appear to be a beaten team.
Oates has brought the team through the troubled times without surrendering.
“I see Brady diving when we’re down by six runs, I see Junior diving for balls,” says Oates, adding, “A word of encouragement in a time of need is worth a lot more than one in a time of victory.” Under Oates’ gentle ride, players don’t believe it’s over yet, though cynics might argue that Oates may never have convinced them they were in it, either. The manager continues to preach to his team that it should win a series at a time and not look at the standings until after the season’s last game.
Cracker-barrel philosophy, amateur psychology, and roster renewal may not be enough to close the gap on the leaders, especially for an Oriole team short on talent coming out of the chute. Note, however, that the Orioles final 10 games are at home: Three against the Yankees and four against the Toronto Blue Jays, the teams they’re most likely to be trying to catch.
Asked about having fewer home losses that any other AL team, Oates’ eyes twinkle, and he says, “We’re playing with a lot of confidence at home.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Joseph Kohl.