By Christopher Heun
The first quarter of the 2006 season is over. These are the facts:
The Orioles are 19-22 heading into Friday night’s game against the Nationals in D.C.There’s no question injuries and inept starting pitching – of the rotation, only Bedard and Benson have ERAs under five – have been the biggest problems. And as glaring as they are, the good news is that the team finished the first 41 games only 3 games under .500.
They’re in fourth place, 5.5 games behind first-place Boston and two games out of the basement.
The pitching staff has given up more runs and more walks than any other team in the American League.
Hayden Penn has a 1.48 ERA in five starts at Triple A Ottawa. In 30 innings, he’s struck out 29, walked 11 and given up 21 hits.
But the most revealing stat of all is this: Of the first 41 games, Brian Roberts and Javy Lopez played in just 24 of them. Reliever Sendy Rleal appeared in more. The Orioles were 6-10 without Roberts. Lopez was also missing from the lineup for most of that stretch.
The injury bug started April 29, when Roberts went down with a groin pull. In the top of the ninth that day, catcher Ramon Hernandez was forced to play first base, Melvin Mora moved to second, Chris Gomez was at shortstop and Jeff Conine had to dust off his third baseman’s mitt. Raul Chavez was behind the plate. Miguel Tejada and Lopez were in the trainer’s room. All that was missing from the makeshift infield was Lenn Sakata wearing a catcher's mask.
Because of injuries, on May 10 the starting infield, from first to third, was Conine, Brandon Fahey, Tejada and Chris Gomez after Mora injured his back the night before. Some players believe the team is snake-bit.
"It just seems like every year, there's been something," Jay Gibbons told The Sun. "It's kind of disheartening. Look at the team we ran out [May 10] compared to Opening Day. It's not even close. We can't afford to lose guys. We've got some guys that are still learning the game and it's hard to compete that way."
The pitching staff has not escaped injury either. Daniel Cabrera went on the disabled list this week, but his lack of command so far this season shouldn’t be blamed on a stiff shoulder, Sam Perlozzo says.
The bullpen has been a mess; that’s well documented. Kurt Birkins, Julio Manon, Chris Britton, Eddy Rodriguez – none of whom were on the Opening Day roster – have all appeared in at least five games.
The biggest puzzler of all, though, has been the starting rotation. Even if you didn’t believe that Leo Mazzone, with all his success in Atlanta, was just going to snap his fingers and lower every Orioles pitcher’s ERA by a run, you still have to be surprised by how bad they’ve been.
The team ERA is second worst in the league, behind Kansas City (who’s only won 10 games all year, an indication of how bad the O’s record really could be). And the staff is tied for the second-most number of homers allowed.
The Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin had this to say during an online chat May 9: "When I talked to Mazzone about this a week or so ago, he expressed some frustration at how the Orioles' pitchers had not yet completely bought into his mantra of pounding fastballs away, away, away. I suspect it is something that will take some time – perhaps even a full season – to sink in."
The other key bit of advice Mazzone has for his pitchers is to throw more than usual between starts, which some people consider unorthodox. Perlozzo defended that in an interview with The Sun: "Hitters go out and they hit every day," he said. "Fielders take extra ground balls. It only makes sense that the more you work on a pitch, the better it should get."
Perlozzo doesn’t really have much choice but to bump Rodrigo Lopez (7.86 ERA) and Bruce Chen (8.23 ERA) from the rotation. Lopez pitched well in the bullpen in 2004, even if he was vocal about his unhappiness with the role. "I think eventually you'll come to a time where you're going to have to say, 'That's it, guys, jobs are in jeopardy,'" Perlozzo told The Sun.
Meanwhile, Penn will likely get called up next week to make at least one start in place of Cabrera. How long he’ll stick around is the question.
In the month of May, an Orioles starter has pitched seven innings only three times: Cabrera, Benson and Bedard each managed it once. That’s a lot of innings for the bullpen.
At the 20 game mark, I said the pitching would get better, for the simple reason that it had to. I was wrong – so far, anyway. The team ERA actually got worse since then, slipping from 5.44 to 5.64. But I still say it gets better.
About his recent slump, Kevin Millar had this to say in his online journal at mlb.com: "I also understand that there's a lot of baseball left and a lot of at-bats left. And that's why they call it a [batting] average."
The same applies to the pitching staff’s earned-run average. Let’s hope they both improve.