Going from resilient to silent Free fall: A scoring deficiency that was overcome last season has mushroomed in the new year and now, not only are the bats quiet, but so are the players.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Two weeks ago the Orioles comforted themselves by insisting that they were experiencing nothing more than an early-season slump. Since, they have tumbled into the worst losing streak in a decade, causing manager Ray Miller to rip his clubhouse following Friday night's loss in Oakland and forcing the front office to contemplate an overhaul of an aged, seemingly indifferent club.

Last Tuesday, majority owner Peter Angelos insisted the club would not be taken apart until a wild-card berth seemed improbable. Given the team's recent direction -- an 11-25 collapse that included a nine-game losing streak before last night's 9-1 win over the A's -- such evidence mounts.

"It's been long enough," said one club official. "They've run out of protection."

Miller reached his breaking point after Friday's 9-5 loss that featured Scott Kamieniecki surrendering seven runs in three innings. He dressed down his team and then vented more in front of the media, at one point sweeping papers off his desk then hurling a TV remote against a wall. By their actions, the Orioles no longer perceive themselves the same as on April 14 when they stood at 10-2. General manager Pat Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone accompanied the team the West Coast, ostensibly to scout for the upcoming amateur draft. However, a series of closed-door meetings in the last week have addressed a change of chemistry.

The Orioles won 98 games last season without career years from any offensive player. Gold Glove first baseman Rafael Palmeiro hit 38 home runs with 110 RBIs and was viewed a disappointment because of a sagging average (.254) and a postseason disappearance. Cal Ripken endured the most challenging season of his career. Roberto Alomar endured an injury-filled campaign.

Rather than inject the clubhouse with younger, vital role players last off-season, the Orioles opted to mostly stand pat.

Meanwhile, they suffered the hurtful losses of closer Randy Myers, who defected to the Toronto Blue Jays when they offered a third guaranteed year, and a slew of younger players to expansion. Outfielder David Dellucci, the Double-A Eastern League's MVP, utility infielder Aaron Ledesma and pitching prospect Esteban Yan were sacrificed.

The Orioles countered by signing graybeards Joe Carter ($3.3 million) and since-released Ozzie Guillen ($450,000). Carter has given the Orioles more of what they already had -- age, outfielders requiring hefty amounts of plate appearances and a right-handed bat. The logjam has created uneasiness among the four-man rotation of Carter, Eric Davis, Jeffrey Hammonds and Harold Baines, which mans right field and the designated hitter slot. Miller's need for speed -- and Carter's obvious struggles in right field -- have led to more time for Hammonds. Carter appears odd man out.

"It's a different situation here," says Carter. "We have a lot of veterans who have never had to handle the roles they're now in. It's tough when you've played 10 or 15 years and come into a situation where you are asked to do things differently."

The Orioles have become reclusive birds. After Tuesday's brawl against the Yankees, virtually every position player made himself off limits, leaving catcher Lenny Webster, who did not play, to speak for the team. Miller has grown weary of the redundant questions and recently lamented, "I wish some of those guys would talk."

Injuries to key players have aggravated a deteriorating situation. Miller likens the losses of Mike Mussina, Kamieniecki and Brady Anderson for portions of this season to the Yankees losing Andy Pettitte, Hideki Irabu and Bernie Williams.

Says Angelos: "After you go through all this anguish, it's apparent the offensive decline began a long time ago and is continuing. What's really enhancing the deficiency is the pitching hasn't been able to hold up.

"When you combine an offensive decline with injuries to Mike [Mussina] and others, you have the picture. You can't blame it on a hitting coach or a manager. It's there. Hopefully, it's not as bad as it seems."

Others, including left fielder B.J. Surhoff, have been less tactful. He called the situation "a joke" during the Yankees series.

Gillick now admits the offense is fundamentally flawed and has begun a search for additional left-handed hitting. "I think it's been going on too long for it to just be a phase," he says.

The result will likely be the trade of at least one significant player to jolt the club. Talks are ongoing with the New York Mets about a deal that would exchange second baseman Roberto Alomar for infielder Carlos Baerga and pitcher Dave Mlicki. Palmeiro could be introduced to expand the deal for first baseman John Olerud.

Until recently, Miller urged the club's broadcast team to take every opportunity to "pump up" Alomar. However, Alomar's noncommittal play, possibly affected by his pending free agency, has caused the club to reconsider.

The bullpen also has not recovered from losing Myers. Uncertain roles, overuse and indifferent performances have constructed a bullpen ERA of 5.28 and seven blown saves. The Orioles have lost eight games when tied or leading after six innings.

Miller has proven himself a master at preparing pitchers. He has been less adroit at maneuvering them in and out of games. Last Sunday, he withheld Arthur Rhodes from a game the Orioles blew to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays by citing a desire to keep the left-hander fresh for the upcoming Yankees series.

On Monday, he rushed Rhodes into a game the Orioles trailed 6-3 and allowed him to pitch three innings, leaving him unavailable until Thursday. Meanwhile, the Orioles blew a 5-1 deficit on Tuesday.

"I'm not going to second-guess myself," Miller maintains. "I've put guys in the right places at the right times. Things just haven't worked out."

Angelos has offered Miller a vote of confidence. The appreciative manager now waits for his club, in whatever form, to play with some of the same.

A tale of three teams

The Orioles began the 1997 season by playing at a torrid .703 pace (45-19) through the first 64 games. Since then, the team is barely above the .500 mark at 74-71. A breakdown of the start and finish to last season and the start to this season:

... .. .. .. .. ..Through .. .. ..June 16 .. .. ..Through

.. .. .. .. .. ...June 15 .. ..to Sept. 28 .. .. .. .May 23

Games .. .. .. .. .....64 .. ... .. . .98 .. .. . .... .47

Record .. .. .. .. .45-19 .. .. .. .53-45 .. . . .. .21-26

Pct... .. .. .. .... .703.. .. .. . ..541 ... .. .. . .438

Home .. .. .. .. .. .21-7 .. .. ... 25-28 . .. .. ...10-13

Road .. .. .. .. ...24-12 .. .. .. .28-17 . .. .. ...11-13

One-run .. .. .. .. ..9-6 .. .. .. .19-16 . .. .. .. ..4-8

Two-run .. .. .. .. .14-2 .. .. .. .. 5-7 . .. .. .. ..3-3

Extra inn. .. .. .. ..4-4 .. .. .. .. 6-2 . .. .. .. ..0-1

Series wins .. .. .. ..15 .. .. .. .. .16 .. .. .. .. ...6

Series losses .. .. .. .2 .. .. .. .. .13 .. .. .. .. ...8

Series splits .. .. .. .8 .. .. .. .. ..6 .. .. .. .. .. 3

Series sweeps .. .. ...11 .. .. .. .. ..6 .. .. .. .. ...2

Average.. .. .. .. . .277.. .. .. .. .262.. .. .. ... .260

Runs/G .. .. .. .. ...5.5 .. .. .. ...4.7 .. .. .. .. .4.8

Hits/G .. .. .. .. ...9.6 .. .. .. ...9.0 .. .. .. .. .8.8

HR/G .. .. .. .. .. ..1.2 .. .. .. ...1.2 .. .. .. .. .1.2

ERA .. .. .. .. .. ..3.63 .. .. .. ..4.10 .. .. .. ...5.02

Saves .. .. .. .. .. ..32 .. .. .. .. .27 .. .. .. .. ...9

Hits/9 .. .. .. .. .. 8.1 .. .. .. ...9.0 .. .. .. .. .9.7

BB/9 .. .. .. .. .. ..3.5 .. .. .. ...3.5 .. .. .. .. .3.5

SO/9 .. .. .. .. .. ..6.8 .. .. .. ...7.2 .. .. .. .. .6.8 Ray Miller - DOWN -- Working with a short bullpen and a fitful offense have taken an obvious toll. Thursday's Earl Weaver-like ejection didn't help. He continues to protect players who do nothing to protect him.

Cal Ripken -- DOWN -- This May has looked eerily similar to last September.

Armando Benitez -- DOWN --His plunking of Tino Martinez was a powerless signal. It cost the team's youngest player much standing within a veteran clubhouse. Whether he remains the closer after an eight-game suspension is uncertain.

Team intensity -- DOWN -- Wednesday night, Brady Anderson forgets to run on a pop fly. On Thursday, wanna-be Globetrotter Roberto Alomar makes a costly behind-the-back error and then fails to go after Ripken's sailing throw. No wonder this team can't win a close game.

Playoff talk -- DOWN -- Entering the weekend, the Orioles needed to play .600 ball the rest of the way for an 89-73 finish. Tough to envision coming off a 10-24 fade.

Minor-league -- DOWN -- help Despite woeful production -- especially in the bullpen -- there is nothing from within to prod a somnambulant clubhouse.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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