HALFWAY TO NOWHERE Orioles could have contended in this season to forget Peter Schmuck


OAKLAND, Calif. -- It has been three months since expectation first collided with reality, and the Baltimore Orioles are still trying to pick up the jagged pieces of a shattered season.

This was supposed to be a team to contend with, but that was before the Glenn Davis medical mystery tour, before Ben McDonald became injury-prone and before almost everything that was supposed to be good about the Orioles wilted under the glare of those bright preseason projections.

The club's "Season to Remember" has been undermined by a team to forget. So, where to now?

The Orioles open the second half tonight in Oakland, still hoping to make a silk purse out of a sour year, though their performance through the first 80 games of the season did little to keep that hope alive.

"There was no doubt in my mind that we were going to be a winning team," said first baseman Randy Milligan. "What makes it so disappointing is that our expectations were so high, as high as they've been for myself. We haven't lived up to half of them."

The pitching has been erratic (and that's being kind) and the offensive performance has been inconsistent. If it weren't for Cal Ripken's impressive first-half performance, there would be nothing particularly noteworthy about the Orioles in 1991 except their frustration.

Ripken has been the lightning rod in an otherwise hostile competitive climate. He leads the American League with a .348 batting average and ranks among the league leaders in almost every other offensive category. Milligan is providing some backup after a slow start, and Sam Horn has contributed 14 home runs without the benefit of a full-time role, but it would have taken much more than that to overcome the explosive starting rotation.

The Orioles fell behind by 3-0 or worse in the first three innings 24 times in the first half and suffered a double-digit blowout an average of once every eight games. The starting rotation -- including disabled right-hander Dave Johnson -- is 21-26 with a combined ERA of 5.19.

How bad is that? Apparently not bad enough to cause a major upheaval in the starting rotation, because the problem is spread around so evenly. But on a successful staff, an individual pitcher with a losing record and a 5.19 ERA would be a roster move waiting to happen.

The bullpen has made a significant contribution, but it has functioned largely as a cleanup crew for a rotation that has

averaged less than five innings per start.

Perhaps the situation wouldn't look so grim if Davis had not suffered a freak neck injury and Ben McDonald had been able to start every fifth day and Dwight Evans could have avoided the disabled list. But every team has injuries. The good teams have ** the depth to overcome them.

For the Orioles, depth be not proud. They have sacrificed a roster spot all season because utility man Juan Bell is out of options and might be lost on waivers if the club attempts to return him to the minor leagues. The fact that Bell is only effective at shortstop and the fact that he won't be playing shortstop for the Orioles any time soon leaves room to wonder if the club is clinging to a seat cushion while the rest of the boat floats away.

The AL East race already has gotten away from them, though the Bell situation is only a minor part of the overall picture. The Toronto Blue Jays are preparing to turn the stretch run into a runaway. The Orioles are a stretch of the imagination away from doing anything about it.

But manager John Oates clings to the belief that things will improve dramatically, perhaps enough for the Orioles to be more than an afterthought at the end of the race.

"I sure hope so," he said. "I hope a whole lot of good things happen in the next three months. We've got 82 ballgames left. I'm not just talking about building for the future. It's not time to start thinking about next year yet."

The evidence indicates otherwise. The Orioles are 14 1/2 games out of first place and fading. They are off to the fifth-worst start in club history. They have played 80 games, probably enough to draw some conclusions -- and not very positive ones.

Who's to blame? Maybe no one. The front office made three major moves during the off-season, only one of which was subject to even moderate criticism.

The deal that sent Pete Harnisch, Steve Finley and Curt Schilling to the Houston Astros for Davis would be easy to second-guess now, but it was the right move at the time. The acquisition of free agent Dwight Evans was a low-risk venture that has worked out in spite of the Achilles' tendon injury that has kept him on the disabled list for three weeks. Even the Mickey Tettleton deal -- which doesn't look very good at the moment -- was completed for reasons that made sense at the time.

The club has shown modest improvement since former manager Frank Robinson was fired in late May, but there was sentiment then that the Orioles had no place to go but up. They have played near .500 for Oates, who feels they will do much better when they start winning the close games.

It's easy to pick apart a team like the Orioles, but what's the point? Oates is right about one thing: There are 82 games left to play and the club might as well try to make the best of them.

"The No. 1 priority for the second half of the season is to get more consistent pitching," Oates said. "Each of our pitchers could come in and make a valid point that they have pitched well enough to be here, but the bottom line is, you can't come in here and pitch well once and then pitch poorly the next two times. In the second half, we can't be down three runs in the first three innings 25 times and expect to do anything."

The offense has warmed up with the weather. Milligan has made the biggest turnaround, but the club is getting contributions from some less likely sources. Newly promoted Chito Martinez has five hits in his first 13 major-league at-bats. David Segui is proving to be the solid hitter everyone in the organization expects him to be. Bob Melvin has the highest average on the club with runners in scoring position.

"I think we'll definitely have a better second half," outfielder Joe Orsulak said. "I don't know if we can come all the way back. We may be too far out for that. But, hopefully, we can improve on the first half. Our offense has been better, so if the pitching gets more consistent, we should be able to win a lot of games."

The Oates power-of-positive-thinking approach appears to have infected the clubhouse, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to move the club up in the standings.

"You can always turn things around," said center fielder Mike Devereaux, who is having a solid season at the plate. "You can still make it exciting for the team and for the fans, which would make all the difference in the world going into next season. I definitely think it's important to end the last season at Memorial Stadium on an exciting note."

Glenn Davis takes batting practice

Orioles first baseman Glenn Davis took a major step in his rehabilitation yesterday when he took approximately 25 swings off pitching coach Al Jackson in practice at Memorial Stadium.

"It felt good to be back on the field again," Davis told Orioles public relations director Rick Vaughn. "I think I've made remarkable progress. I've come a long way. Just to be able to go out and be able to swing the bat does a world of good for me."

Vaughn said that even though Davis was going at half-speed during the workout, the last ball he hit short-hopped the fence in left-center.

Davis will accompany the Orioles on their road trip that begins tonight in Oakland, Calif., but Vaughn said there's no chance Davis will be activated from the disabled list during the trip. The Orioles will return to Memorial Stadium on July 19 to face the Mariners.

Davis last played April 24. He was placed on the DL on April 26 with a spinal accessory nerve injury to his neck.

Orioles tonight


Site: Oakland (Calif.) Coliseum

Time: 10:05

Orioles starter: Jeff Robinson (4-6, 4.48)

Athletics starter: Dave Stewart (6-5, 5.43)

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)

TV: Channels 2, 20

The good, the bad and the ugly

The good

* Shortstop Cal Ripken is leading the league with a .348 batting average and ranks highly in several other departments.

* First baseman Randy Milligan is batting .463 in his last 15 games with 4 home runs and 14 RBI.

* Sam Horn leads the AL in home run/at-bat ratio, hitting 1 every 12.8 trips to the plate.

* Catcher Bob Melvin is leading the club a .378 average with runners in scoring position.

The bad

* Orioles starters have fallen behind by 3-0 or worse in the first 3 innings 24 times in the first 80 games.

* The club is 4-11 in 1-run games under new manager John Oates.

* The pitching staff's 4.93 combined ERA is the second highest in club history at this point in the season. In 1987 it was 5.08 at the break.

The ugly

* Left-handed relievers Kevin Hickey and Paul Kilgus have combined to give up 15 earned runs in their past 8 1/3 innings (16.20 ERA).

* Utility man Juan Bell has 8 hits in 61 at-bats this year, only 3 more than newcomer Chito Martinez had in his first 3 games as an Oriole.

* The Orioles pitching staff has taken a double-digit (10 runs or more) drubbing 10 times this year -- an average of one every 8 games.

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