Repeat three times with fingers crossed: "The pitching will improve"
By Christopher Heun
The 2006 season is only 20 games old, too small a “sample size,” as the stat geeks like to say, to draw conclusions, but enough time to get a good feeling about the Orioles.
Granted, a “good feeling” about the O’s means this could be the year, after eight straight losing seasons, that they finish at .500. A lot of things have to go right for that to happen – too many, you could say – but nevertheless the season is still young enough that the fresh hopes left over from Opening Day have yet to reach their expiration date.
An 11-9 record might not be much to get excited about, but the players all look visibly relieved that the horror show of a year ago is over. It’s hard to create good clubhouse vibes without winning on the field, but Kevin Millar has brought his chemistry set from Boston and the early results look promising. Miggy, the volatile star and focal point, is yapping again in the dugout (and hitting like his old self).
Clearly, the players want to win for manager Sam Perlozzo. A night after getting trounced 15-1 by Cleveland, the Orioles fell behind 7-3 in the fifth before unloading for an 18-9 victory. And a big off-season question mark, closer Chris Ray, has been perfect in his new role.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s still early. Ramon Hernandez won’t be hitting .377 in September like he is now, but he will continue to play stellar defense, the reason he was signed last winter. He’s thrown out 10 of 14 runners trying to steal and is clearly better behind the plate than Javy Lopez, the man without a position who has yet to get on track as the designated hitter – but, to his credit, has not raised a stink about his role.
The fact that there are still 142 games to go is also a reason for hope, at least when it comes to the pitching staff. Clearly, the much-ballyhooed Mazzone magic has yet to take effect. As the new pitching coach, Leo Mazzone was supposed to turn Oriole hurlers into clones of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, his Braves protégés.
Instead, what we’ve seen so far is a pretty good imitation of Oriole pitching circa, say, 2001 or 2002, which featured nightly parades of opposing baserunners. This year’s staff leads the American League in walks, is tied with Toronto for giving up the most homers and the 5.44 team ERA ranks tenth. Those numbers will get better. They have to.
With the exception of Eric Bedard, who’s 4-0 with a 2.77 ERA, and a solid Kris Benson, the starting rotation has been shaky. And that was supposed to be the staff’s strength.
Daniel Cabrera has no idea where the ball’s headed once it leaves his hand. He’s walked 22 in 18.1 innings and has an ERA of 6.87. Incredibly, that’s a better ERA than both Rodrigo Lopez and Bruce Chen, who are both over 7.
About the best thing that can be said about the bullpen – other than Ray’s perfect six-for-six in save opportunities, with not a single run allowed – is that Todd Williams and John Parrish will return from injuries within the next month.
They can’t arrive fast enough. Ray, LaTroy Hawkins and Jim Brower have already appeared in 9 of the 20 games, with Sendy Rleal pitching in 8. If this keeps up much longer, arms may start falling off. This is no small concern, especially for a promising pitcher like Ray. The Post's Jorge Arangure addressed the issue of fatigue Tuesday in a glowing article about the young closer.
Despite the poor pitching, the O’s have managed to win more than they’ve lost, against some pretty good teams. They took three out of four from the Angels, a playoff team last year now tied atop the A.L. West, then won a series against Cleveland, who could reach the post-season in 2006 after just missing last year.
They beat the team they should, Tampa Bay, five out of seven. Who they’ll need to improve against are Boston and the Yankees, (they’ve lost five of six against the perennial leaders) but then isn’t that always the case?
The schedule for May looks a little easier: 12 games against bottom-dwellers Kansas City, Seattle, Tampa Bay and the Nationals.
A year ago, the Orioles finished April in first place with a record of 16-7 and took five of six from the Yankees. But we all know the collapse that quickly followed, a tragedy of truly Shakespearean proportion. This year’s team looks like it could be different. In another 20 games, at the season’s quarter post, we’ll know more.