As if they don't have enough problems, the Orioles tonight open their most pivotal road series of the season, against a streaking club that historically gives them fits.
The Milwaukee Brewers not only have won 16 of their last 23 games, they're certain to exploit the Orioles' hidden weakness -- an inability to throw out opposing base stealers.
The Brewers, leading the majors with 93 stolen bases, amount to a very movable object. And the Orioles, throwing out base stealers at a rate of 14 percent, aren't exactly an irresistible force.
Ironically enough, the situation could improve now that defensive specialist Jeff Tackett has replaced the injured Chris Hoiles at catcher. It better, for the Orioles now lead the third-place Brewers by just three games.
Thought the Brew Crew were an aggressive bunch under former manager Tom Trebelhorn? They border on reckless under new manager Phil Garner. In fact, they're averaging two attempted steals per game.
"They never stop," Orioles manager Johnny Oates was saying before last night's 5-4 victory over New York. "It doesn't matter what the score, what the inning. That's their offense: Run, run, run."
Needless to say, Oates is concerned. He summoned his catchers for extra throwing practice last Friday, but holds his pitchers equally responsible. The Orioles have failed to throw out 19 straight base stealers. There's enough blame to go around.
The staff, Oates says, is "very average" at holding runners. Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks seconds that opinion, and pitching coach Dick Bosman concedes, "We've been a little bit negligent in that area."
Hoiles, the regular catcher before fracturing his right wrist Sunday, hasn't thrown as accurately as last season, when his success rate was a respectable 33.7 percent. Still, there's no way he should be down to 12.8 percent (5-for-39).
No way, unless the pitchers are taking their time delivering the ball. Oates and Hendricks, two former catchers, believe that's the case. Bosman, a former pitcher, sees it a bit differently, but doesn't argue the point.
Whatever, the situation better improve, and fast. Milwaukee boasts eight players with five or more stolen bases, led by rookie Pat Listach with 23. The Orioles have only two such players -- Brady Anderson (22 steals) and Mark McLemore (six).
Of course, this is hardly a one-year trend. During the past three seasons, the Brewers have stolen 41 bases against the Orioles, in just 39 games. In '89 and '90, the Orioles won the season series, 7-6. In '91, the Brewers won it, 10-3.
The clubs have yet to meet this season, but now they play six times in the next nine days. Tackett obviously will be a central figure. Oates describes him as a "much better" thrower than Hoiles.
At Rochester last season, Tackett threw out 52 percent of opposing base stealers (49 of 94) to lead the International League for the second time in three years. Yet not even a catcher with that powerful an arm can do it alone.
As an example, Hendricks cites the June 14 game in Detroit, when Tony Phillips stole second on Tackett after taking a running lead off Storm Davis. "When that guy can't throw anybody out," Hendricks says, "there's something wrong."
As Hendricks sees it, the pitchers "are concentrating on the hitters and forgetting about the runners. All they have to do is speed it back up again. They can pick up the pace at any time. It's a lack of concentration on their part. But it happens."
Adds Bosman, "We've got to be a little more conscious of situations when guys are going to run. Most of these guys are good enough to get the ball to the plate in time. But they've got to be aware of when and how to do it."
A successful base stealer usually negotiates the 90 feet from first to second in fewer than 3.5 seconds. According to Bosman, a pitcher should deliver the ball in 1.3 seconds, and a catcher should get it to second in fewer than two.
On the current staff, Mike Mussina is probably the best at holding runners, Davis probably the worst. Among the catchers, Tackett routinely clocks 1.85 seconds, and Hoiles usually is closer to two. As for Rick Dempsey, who knows?
It won't matter, for Tackett will get the bulk of the playing time for the next four to six weeks, with Dempsey assuming the backup role. Lance Parrish, released by California, would be a useful pickup, but this isn't baseball, it's public relations.
Anyway, the Brewers are a far more pressing concern. The obvious solution is to keep them off the bases, but that's easier said than done -- Milwaukee is second in the AL with a .270 batting average.
It would be helpful if the Orioles pitchers started giving their catchers a chance to throw out base stealers. It would be even more helpful if they started getting some people out.