MONTREAL -- A dismal season reached its midpoint for the Orioles last night. For its deservedly frustrated No. 1 starting pitcher, it coincided with a breaking point.
Handed a 3-1 loss at Olympic Stadium against the Montreal Expos in exchange for his solid seven-inning start, Mike Mussina said what others have only thought during a 37-44 season. No longer comfortable with rationalizations, Mussina said he is "relatively concerned" that a veteran team has become conditioned to losing.
"We haven't put up much of a fight the last couple games," Mussina said. "One night's pitching; one night it's offense. We can't put it together. And it's happening more and more often."
The listless Orioles dropped their fifth straight and need a win today to avoid a three-game sweep by the game's lowest-salaried team as well as an 0-5 road trip. Anyone keeping score realizes they have fallen 21 1/2 games behind the first-place New York Yankees and 11 1/2 behind wild-card leader Boston.
Having convinced themselves that progress was being made, the Orioles now find themselves in the same position -- seven games under .500 -- as on May 22 when they followed up a three-game sweep by the Yankees with an embarrassing loss to the Oakland Athletics.
Manager Ray Miller raged after the A's loss. Last night he said "it's tough" to remain optimistic about a season in tatters. Mussina, outdueled by Expos rookie Carl Pavano, could not suppress his irritation. "Today was the 81st game. It's halfway. We're seven games under," he said. "With the team we're putting on the field, whether we have the pitching we expected )) or we don't, seven games under isn't where we should be. We have to find ways to win games and we're not finding them.
"Some days it doesn't seem like we're looking."
The Orioles managed six hits against five Expos pitchers. Only Chris Hoiles' fourth homer, in the second inning, averted a shutout. Mussina was undone by two looping hits by second baseman Jose Vidro that accounted for two RBIs.
The loss dropped the Orioles to 12-17 in one- and two-run games. It was the second time in three games they lost when allowing three runs, an unpardonable sin for a club thirsting for competent starting pitching.
"The games we were winning last year we're not winning now," said Mussina. "That's the entire difference. We win a game like this last year. [We win] the game [Scott] Erickson pitched in New York. We find a way to win close games. And this year we haven't found a way to do that."
Until now, the Orioles have assured anyone who asked that they have the ability to recover and challenge for a postseason berth. Now they look at 81 remaining games as a prison term, with each game representing a slash on the wall. Nobody remains confident that the present roster will finish next month intact. Based on Mussina's evaluation, at least one player believes it shouldn't.
"We have the same core of guys more or less that we had last year. Things just haven't happened the way they happened last year. We've had injuries. We've had bad breaks. We've had just about everything go wrong that could go wrong. Just when we think we seem to be fighting our way out of it, we seem to be right back where we were. I never thought that we'd be struggling like this," he said.
Five days after throwing a two-hit complete game against the Mets, Mussina was less precise but nearly as effective vs. the Expos. The loss was his first among four road decisions and raised his ERA away from Camden Yards to 1.53.
The slumping Orioles have scored 10 runs on a dismal trip, which has extended their road losing streak to six games.
Mussina's sentiments contrasted with those of Miller the night before. Even following a 9-4 loss, Miller had predicted last night's game would represent a springboard to a rush entering the All-Star break. He cited Mussina's presence, a more rested bullpen and a forgiving schedule that included an off day tomorrow before a three-game home series against the woebegone Florida Marlins.
Trailing 1-0, the Expos gained a tie in the third inning when Shane Andrews singled, took second on Pavano's sacrifice bunt and third on a wild pitch. Mussina then surrendered a double to Vidro.
The Expos again used the bottom of their lineup to manufacture two runs in the seventh. Catcher Chris Widger led off with a single. Andrews then bunted the runner over and Scott Livingstone pinch hit for Pavano.
A .172 hitter with two extra-base hits in 58 at-bats, Livingstone drilled a double past right fielder Rich Becker to score Andrews. Vidro then reappeared to grab his second RBI with a looping single.
With Pavano gone, the Orioles threatened the Expos' bullpen in the eighth inning when pinch hitters Jeff Reboulet and Joe Carter singled to manufacture a first-and-second situation with one out. Expos manager Felipe Alou summoned Rick DeHart to face Rafael Palmeiro, who quickly worked a 3-0 count. Palmeiro then popped out to the catcher on the fourth pitch. Roberto Alomar followed to smack a first-pitch grounder to short.
These are the 1998 Orioles. They repeatedly sidestep an opponent's ace, yet are still unable to capitalize against underaged or underachieving starters.
Carter stopped short of Mussina's assessment. "I think guys are trying. It's just not happening," he said.
Miller has tried to maintain his belief in a club that is operating with four dependable relievers, two proven starters and an outfield minus its starting right fielder. Doug Drabek returns from the disabled list today, but the wait continues for Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki. A hope to stay competitive until both arms return is quickly becoming fantasy. There exists no basis for a winning streak given the uncertain rotation and inconsistent hitting.
A turnaround? Turning away from the spreading mess becomes a more tempting alternative.
Opponent: Montreal Expos
Site: Olympic Stadium, Montreal
Time: 1: 35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Doug Drabek (5-7, 6.72) vs. Expos' Javier Vazquez (1-6, 5.63)
Since their 10-2 start, the Orioles have played .391 ball (9-14) against teams in fourth or fifth place in their divisions:
.. .. .. .. .. ..Overall .. .. .. ..Record
Team .. .. .. .. .record .. .. .. .vs. O's
Tampa .. .. .. .. .33-46 .. .. .. .. ..5-2
Chicago-A . .. .. .32-47 .. .. .. .. ..3-1
Montreal .. .. .. .32-47 .. .. .. .. ..2-0
Oakland .. .. .. ..36-43 .. .. .. .. ..3-3
Seattle .. .. .. ..34-47 .. .. .. .. ..1-3
Pub Date: 6/28/98