Well, the Orioles have said all along they're not a .500 team.
Yesterday, during an eighth-inning collapse that served as a microcosm of a disastrous 30-game slump, they backed up their promise in all the wrong ways. The result was a grotesque 7-3 loss to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays that only intensified questions about this team's direction.
The Devil Rays can complete their first sweep of a road series tonight by again beating the defending American League East champions. The 20-22 Orioles have dropped four straight and five of their past six to fall two games below .500 for the first time since the last day of the 1995 season.
They also tumbled 10 1/2 games behind the first-place New York Yankees, their largest deficit since July 30, 1996, and stand just a half game away from the bottom of the division.
A team that once prided itself on finding ways to win again discovered another disturbing way to lose.
Poised for an uplifting win after Brady Anderson's two-out, three-run home run in the seventh, the Orioles watched as their bullpen suffered its worst collapse of the season when three relievers failed to get an out, priming a five-run eighth inning.
After seven strong innings by jilted starter Scott Kamieniecki, Norm Charlton and Alan Mills (0-2) walked the bases loaded with none out, then Jesse Orosco surrendered a game-winning, two-run double to Fred McGriff.
Seldom-seen closer Armando Benitez allowed three more runs to score while allowing just one hit that didn't even leave the infield. The meltdown required 48 pitches and included five walks, a hit batter and a single off the plate.
While most of his teammates evacuated the clubhouse, Kamieniecki remained behind to speak the obvious.
"Last year's over. I'm not going to compare this team to last year. As you can see, it's no contest," Kamieniecki said.
The Orioles now stand 10-20 since April 14. Yesterday represented their sixth blown save and third loss when leading after seven innings. Rookie right-hander Jason Johnson, a two-pitch starter who carried a 5.68 ERA into the game, held them scoreless on two hits in six innings. For the third time in the series the Orioles managed six hits and are batting .188 with six runs scored for the series.
"We're well aware of the situation," said Anderson, who has three home runs in his past three games. "So whether people want to say it's early or not is really irrelevant.
"Things happen very quickly. Teams win five in a row and teams lose five in a row. Waiting for other teams to lose isn't the right way to go about it. But there's a certain number of games out there -- we don't know the number yet -- that it's going to take to make the playoffs. That's where we have to go."
However, patience is an eroding virtue.
"There's been concern the last couple of weeks. It doesn't seem like we're getting any better," Kamieniecki said. "We're finding more ways to lose games. Sooner or later, you've got to turn it around, or pretty soon it's going to be over. We can't keep digging ourselves a bigger hole."
The afternoon became a sum of all fears for the Orioles. While the bullpen collapsed, ex-Oriole David Wells completed a perfect game for the Yankees against the Minnesota Twins. One irked fan walked past the press box screaming over and over, "Why don't you announce Wells' perfect game?"
Another wise guy walked an aisle holding a sign reading, "Hey, Mr. Angelos, missing Davey yet?"
The protest by the Davey Johnson booster probably meant less. He was wearing a Yankees cap.
The loss occurred before a crowd of 47,628, less than half of whom remained for the bitter end.
"It's coming to a point where there may be a sense of urgency," said catcher Lenny Webster. "We go in to play the Yankees [this week], and it's an important series. If we don't play well against them, we'll be embarrassed. And I don't think 25 guys here want to go to New York and get embarrassed."
Down 2-0, Anderson took advantage of a favorable matchup against ex-Oriole Esteban Yan in the seventh. With two outs, the center fielder hammered the right-hander's 3-1 pitch for his fourth homer of the season.
"That's all it takes sometimes," Kamieniecki said. "We got a big break there. We finally got one out of the ballpark in a big situation. But you've got to go back out there and throw strikes. I can't help but feel like we gave them the game. You go back out and walk the first three guys, you're just giving it away."
The giveaway began when Miller chose to pull Kamieniecki after seven innings and 95 pitches.
"'I was feeling good. I only had 95 pitches. I could have gone back out, but that's pretty much hindsight now," he said.
In a situation that usually demands Arthur Rhodes, Miller was holding back the left-hander for the three-game series in New York that begins tomorrow night. Rhodes has iced his knee for three days but considered himself on call.
"I just wait for the phone. That's all I can do," Rhodes said.
Miller instead handed Charlton a one-run lead and watched him walk leadoff hitter Dave Martinez after getting ahead 0-2.
Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild then sent switch-hitter Quinton McCracken to pinch-hit for Randy Winn. Miller, believing the right-handed Mills would eliminate a steal threat while forcing McCracken to bunt, gambled incorrectly.
McCracken had beaten Mills with a seventh-inning home run one week ago. Moreover, he was hitting .353 batting left-handed vs. .294 right-handed. McCracken also had 15 extra-base hits in 119 left-handed at-bats, compared to three in 51 right-handed at-bats.
No matter. Mills walked him on four pitches, then walked Mike Kelly on five to load the bases. The Devil Rays took one swing during the three-hitter sequence.
"There's no defense against walks," Miller said.
On came Orosco, who fell behind McGriff 3-1 before feeding him a fastball drilled into left field for two runs and a 4-3 Devil Rays lead.
Exasperated, Miller yanked Orosco in favor of Benitez against left-handed hitter Paul Sorrento, who became the inning's fourth walk to reload the bases.
Tampa Bay scored three more times when ex-Oriole Aaron Ledesma chopped a single, No. 9 hitter Miguel Cairo was hit by a pitch and Martinez was walked for the second time in the inning.
"They didn't beat us today," Kamieniecki said. "We pretty much gave it away. Good teams don't do that. You load the bases without giving up a hit, you're asking for trouble."
The order has been filled.
Mussina again headed to DL
Orioles ace Mike Mussina likely will be placed on the 15-day disabled list today or tomorrow as he recovers from a broken nose and laceration above his right eye that required about 30 stitches.
It would be this season's second stint on the DL for the All-Star pitcher, who was injured Thursday night after getting hit in the face with a line drive off the bat of Sandy Alomar.
Walk on the wild side
A recap of Orioles' bullpen woes in the eighth inning:
Pitcher, Balls, Strikes, Comment, Runs
Charlton, 4, 2, Walked Martinez after 0-2 count, 1
Mills, 8, 1, Walked both batters he faced, 2
Orosco, 3, 2, Allowed 2-run double to McGriff; 2 of 3 inherited runners scored 1
Benitez, 15, 13, Walked 2, hit 1, allowed RBI single; both inherited runners scored, 1
Pub Date: 5/18/98