What a difference two months make
By Matthew Taylor
The term "roller coaster season" may be cliché, but it's becoming a way of life for Birds fans in recent years.
There are obviously more downs than ups any time you're talking about a team that's working on a 10-year losing streak. However, the O's have a way of plummeting particularly hard after offering glimmers of hope to a fan base that's starved for even the slightest hint that the dark clouds over Camden Yards might finally be parting. These sudden drops offer fresh ways of of piercing the armor of even the most hardened, pessimistic, underdog fans.
-Fourteen games over .500, 4.5 games up, on May 26.
-Sixty-two days in first place. Leading the AL East until June 23.
-A "near perfect weekend" in July when the Orioles took three out of four from the defending champion Red Sox heading into the All-Star Break.
-Palmerio three hits shy of 3,000 at the Break.
And then the bottom fell out.
Noone expected the Birds to win the AL East this season, but .500 was a realistic goal for 2007. Believe it or not, there was a guarded sense of optimism in Charm City during the first month of the season.
Looking back on some of The Sun's April coverage, two months seems like a lifetime ago.
Excerpts from: "Birds of a Feather; The O's Hang Out Together. Now, Can They Win Together?"
April 20, 2007
Walker, a 35-year-old veteran who made his big league debut 10 years ago, was one of 16 players or coaches who at the start of the month experienced their first Opening Day as Orioles. He was signed primarily because he was a left-handed reliever who could get people out, something that was sorely missing from the 2006 Orioles.
But he also fit in with what the front office has been trying to do for the past two seasons - repair a clubhouse that was fractured during the once-promising 2005 season because of losing, steroid allegations and other off-the-field problems.
"It was best available talent and then best available character. Those were the two criteria that we focused a lot on," club vice president Jim Duquette said. "It's been a concerted effort based on what happened in 2005. I am impressed with how quickly it has come together."
The Orioles, who bring an 8-7 record into the start of a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays tonight at Camden Yards, have given off some mixed signals through the first three weeks of the season. Their overhauled bullpen has justified the front office's $42 million-plus investment. Their offense, defense and starting pitching have been good at times, but also prone to lapses.
But the longest-tenured members of the organization acknowledge there is a different feel in the clubhouse. They said that the 2007 Orioles are looser and closer-knit.
"That's a part of why we win," designated hitter-first baseman Kevin Millar said. "There is a feel of trust in this clubhouse. It's been awesome. Trust, caring for each other, pulling for each other - that equals W's. Your talent is going to take over for an extent, but you'll lose a lot of games when you don't have guys that care about each other."
Huff scoffed at the notion that clubhouse chemistry is overrated.
"That's [wrong]. If it's anything, it's underrated," Huff said. "I think if you have a team with good chemistry, it makes you play better baseball on the field. I've been on teams where guys couldn't stand each other and it was the most miserable season. I honestly believe that you can't win without it."
In the past, Orioles utility man Chris Gomez would have disagreed with Huff's statement. Gomez, 35, who is playing in his 15th major league season, said he has long felt camaraderie was overvalued. But he didn't feel that way after being in the dugout Monday when the team erased a six-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
"I haven't seen excitement like that since I've been here," said Gomez, an Oriole since 2005. "Guys were pulling for each other. It was pure excitement over a game that we probably shouldn't have won. There was a lot of unselfishness between teammates. It probably does help."
Excerpts from: "Orioles' Pen is Mightier; Club's Relievers Retire Nine of 10 Batters as O's Rally to Win Series."
April 19, 2007
Bedard (3-1) left the game with two outs in the sixth inning and the Orioles' lead down to 5-4. But Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo used four relievers to get the last 10 outs, including closer Chris Ray, who struck out the side in the ninth for his fifth save. The bullpen retired nine of the 10 hitters it faced, helping the club improve to 8-7.
"It's unbelievable," said Ray, who has allowed one base runner in six appearances since surrendering the walk-off grand slam to New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez on April 7. "My job is a heck of a lot easier when you have all those guys before me going in there, setting the tempo, and keeping the momentum on our side and keeping the score the same when it gets to me. I'm throwing just one inning instead of an inning plus. The guys behind me are getting guys out left and right."
The bullpen, which was rebuilt this offseason to the cost of approximately $42 million after last year's group was the second worst in the league, allowed just six hits and one earned run in 13 innings of work.
"[The bullpen] has made all the difference in the world," said designated hitter Kevin Millar, whose bloop RBI double in the fifth inning scored Miguel Tejada and gave the Orioles a 4-3 lead. "That's what [the front office] attacked this offseason ... and it is paying off right now."
Excerpt from: "So Far, Orioles Right On Money With Their Revamped Bullpen."
April 17, 2007
But so far, so good.
Each of the Fab Four has been effective, with Walker (1.50 ERA in eight appearances) looking especially sharp. Fittingly, the only one who has looked slightly shaky (4.05 ERA in seven appearances) is the highest-paid: Baez, who signed a three-year, $19 million deal.You're probably looking at one of baseball's better bullpens when you throw in Ray, a star closer in the making, and left-hander John Parrish, who has pitched his way into the mix.
Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo is going to have to figure out how not to burn out Walker, Bradford and Ray, but having dependable options sure beats last year's nightmare.
As I said, it's still early and there are going to be hiccups, but protecting a larger percentage of their leads could propel the Orioles close to .500. The fact that they had to overpay doesn't matter. After years of botching patches, the sight of a solid bullpen is priceless.
To be fair, Eisenberg's column was cautious. For example, he acknowledged of the Orioles that, "During nine straight losing seasons, they have all but perfected the art of the BBP - the botched bullpen patch." Eisenberg added, "Throwing money at any pitching problem is a risky proposition these days. "
Orioles Warehouse notes, "there is value in having a columnist in Eisenberg who has covered the local team over a long period of time and in the process has acquired an intimate sense of its history and tradition."
In other words, Eisenberg has ridden this roller coaster before.