ANAHEIM, CALIF. — ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The owner called the manager insecure. The talented rookie right fielder missed nearly two months with a knee injury. The top home run hitter said he felt clueless at the plate for the first two months of the season.
The starting third baseman, signed for $2 million last winter, begged the front office to send him to the minor leagues. The No. 3 starter, signed for an annual salary of $3 million, has won five games and taken two trips to the disabled list.
The starting center fielder who drove in more than 100 runs two seasons ago has more strikeouts than hits.
And the Orioles are in second place in the American League East, one-half game behind the New York Yankees as the second half of the season gets under way tonight.
The Orioles and Yankees are in a four-team race with the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians for the three remaining playoff spots to go with the AL West winner.
Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, winner of the last two World Series, said he considers the AL East race a virtual tossup.
"I think the Yankees can show a little more offense, but it's all going to come down to pitching," he said. "Whatever team gets better pitching after their aces should win it."
The Orioles head into tonight's opener of a four-game series at Anaheim Stadium with few complaints, despite the stormy first half.
"I think the team had a good first half considering when we left spring training everyone expected us to win 80 games by the All-Star break," said 13-game winner Mike Mussina. "Considering all the heat we have taken, we came out pretty well. Look at all the things that happened and we're right there. We were under a lot of heat about a month ago, especially Johnny. We came out of it OK."
Johnny, of course, would be Orioles manager Johnny Oates, who spent much of the first half seemingly consumed by a siege mentality. In the final weeks, as the team played better, Oates grew calmer.
"You always can find things you would like to improve on, but I think we did well in many areas," Oates said. "While we made some mistakes, our base running has been much, much better than in previous years. We haven't beaten ourselves defensively and we have given up the second-least amount of runs in the league, so that tells you our pitching has been there for us."
The Orioles' lineup, hyped by some as the club's strongest ever, spent much of the season ranked next-to-last in the American League in runs until coming on strong in the final weeks. Since June 26, the Orioles went from 13th in the league in runs scored to seventh. They are on a pace to set a club record for runs scored in this year of the hitter.
The pitching staff, the major area of concern coming out of spring training, has done better than expected.
"I think we changed that perception that we were this outstanding offensive club that was going to go out there and win 9-8 games all the time," Oates said.
The numbers suggest that should be the case, but in truth, the Orioles appear right back where they started. Despite the first-half statistics, little has changed in the way of outlook for the Orioles. The issues remain much the same.
Batting order looks fine
The lineup is not a concern. Thanks to the emergence of Leo Gomez, the Orioles have one more reason to feel optimistic about their ability to score runs than they did coming out of spring training.
Except when slumping Mike Devereaux is in the lineup, there is not an easy out in the batting order now that Jeffrey Hammonds has returned from a strained knee.
"With Jeffrey back, we're back to feeling like we have the top of the order up every inning," Oates said.
And with addition of left-handed-hitting outfielder Dwight Smith, the bench is more balanced, the depth more formidable than when the Orioles headed north from Florida.
Oates has more reason to want to use his bench and has pledged to do so, in order to avoid the September burnout that has settled in at Camden Yards in recent seasons.
OK, so the lineup is fine.
Rotation still needs lift
Despite the statistics, bolstering the starting rotation remains the Orioles' No. 1 trade priority.
No. 3 starter Sid Fernandez has performed more like a No. 4 starter, and No. 4 starter Jamie Moyer has produced more like a No. 5, which leaves the Orioles in the market for a No. 3 starter in the mold of Kansas City's Tom Gordon, should the Royals fall out of the race, or Pittsburgh's Zane Smith, provided the Cincinnati Reds don't beat the Orioles to him the way they beat them to free-agent outfielder Ron Gant, who likely won't play until next year.
Thanks to the low supply of and high demand for starting pitching, a contending team that acquires a starting pitcher will have to overpay drastically. Especially in the age of realignment, which has made it twice as easy to make the playoffs, teams should be wary of parting with top prospects.
The old school of thinking held that teams must go for it when they had the chance because the chance might not come along again for quite a while. That no longer is the case.
Clubs must ask this question: Is it worth trading a young player who might be the difference in making it to the playoffs in three future seasons just to ensure we make it for this one season?
Trading a prospect becomes a much greater risk with an impending strike, almost a prohibitive risk.
So for now, the Orioles move forward with a rotation of Mussina, Ben McDonald, Fernandez, Moyer and Mike Oquist. Left-handers Arthur Rhodes and Rick Krivda, and right-hander Jimmy Haynes are tuning up at Triple-A, and Scott Klingenbeck, who won his only major-league start for the Orioles, remains at Double-A.
The Orioles gladly would take a rerun of the first half in the pitching department. They defied the forecasts in the first half and seek to repeat that in the second.
From closer Lee Smith, who converted 29 of 33 save opportunities, the Orioles don't need a duplication, just something close. Smith did not have a first-half slump, and a closer seldom survives a full season without at least one dry spell. Smith, who has allowed ninth-inning home runs in his past two appearances, including the All-Star Game, does not figure to be any different.
Mussina's fitness watched
From Mussina, the Orioles could get by with 110 innings over the final half, even though he pitched 140 before the break.
The fitness of his shoulder was an issue coming out of spring training and became a minor one again when he encountered more than the usual soreness in the shoulder blade area before his final start.
Mussina threw 120 or more pitches in seven of his 19 starts, including a 136-pitch outing May 6 against the Cleveland Indians. Oates originally planned to stick with a five-man rotation without skipping the fifth starter so as to give McDonald and Mussina more rest, but as Mussina's average rest of 4.2 days per start going into his last start before the break indicates, he departed from that plan. "I think he's going to pick his spots with that," Mussina said. "If there's a strike coming in the middle of August and we're in first place, I think he's going to say 'go get 'em fellas.' "
Oh yes, the strike. It might not matter how well the Orioles play if there is no postseason in which to play. But that's another story, one that won't go away.
Opponent: California Angels
Site: Anaheim Stadium
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Ben McDonald (10-6, 4.47) vs. Angels' Mark Langston (5-5, 4.64)