MONTREAL -- There have been longer losing streaks this season, more distorted losses and less competent starting pitching. But the combination of all three that befell the Orioles yesterday against a team with less than 15 percent its own payroll represented an unchallenged low to a season running out of hope.
Completing a winless five-game road trip, the Orioles fell, 8-4, to the Montreal Expos before 16,145 at Olympic Stadium. They now ride a six-game losing streak and are a season-worst eight games below .500 (37-45).
Expos manager Felipe Alou couldn't resist punching another hole into a capsizing team with the game's highest payroll.
"You really didn't see much heart out there," he said, "but we'll take three wins against anyone."
Though the Orioles defend their effort, many concede performance has steadily declined. A lack of speed combined with shoddy starting pitching has created the perception of a team practicing a routine with little verve.
Manager Ray Miller provided fitting punctuation to a lost weekend. He walked through the tunnel leading from the third base dugout to the visitor's clubhouse and slammed his office door, the sound reverberating through the stadium hollow. Miller met with assistant general manager Kevin Malone afterward and intended to talk further on the flight home.
Questions regarding who stays and who goes are becoming more prominent. Speculation grows within a clubhouse including 12 pending free agents.
"I'm sure a lot of people are wondering," said reliever Alan Mills. "We've heard all kinds of rumors about trades. It's not an unnatural thing to do. It's part of the game."
Yesterday provided plenty of time for reflection. Doug Drabek made his first start since June 13 and lasted 2 1/3 innings before Miller rescued him from a three-run third. The Expos reached Drabek (5-8) for five earned runs on seven hits, including right fielder Vladimir Guerrero's two-run homer in the first inning. The Orioles trailed 6-0 before scoring.
"That team was last in the league in hitting and got 11 hits and eight runs off us," recited Miller. "It's been the same old story. We walked four [actually five], hit one and three of them scored."
Expos rookie starter Javier Vazquez (2-6) entered winless in his previous 10 starts, but survived five innings to gain the decision. Alou used five relievers to cover the last four innings as closer Ugueth Urbina earned his second save of the series.
"It's been a tough trip. We've basically played with 11 players and 10 pitchers for six games," said Miller, referring to a spate of injuries that has become the most consistent theme to the season.
The limping Orioles led for only 1 1/2 innings during the series while being outscored 20-9. They have now lost their past seven road games. A dynamo away from Camden Yards last season, the Orioles have yet to win three straight on the road this year.
At least there remains room for one eternal optimist. Third baseman Cal Ripken rejected the idea that the Orioles have fallen into an abyss with no hope for return. "I'm not concerned about that, because a lot of things can happen," he said. "The best thing you can do is go out and do the best you can and play as well as you can. You can't get too far ahead of yourself. You can't play the whole second half at one time. You try to get things right and get going."
For once, the Orioles received passable long relief, as Terry Mathews and Norm Charlton threw a solid 3 2/3 innings. For at least one of them, yesterday likely represented a final game with the club.
The Orioles scored twice in the fifth inning on Mike Bordick's ground ball and pinch hitter Harold Baines' sacrifice fly. They closed to 6-4 in the sixth on Rafael Palmeiro's 23rd home run, but managed one hit the rest of the way.
"Our guys have no complaints about not getting pitches," said Miller. "They had pitches to hit."
Starting pitching remains this team's fatal flaw. Drabek was one of three starters sidelined before returning yesterday. (Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki are gone indefinitely.) But even before straining a muscle in his chest June 13 while warming in the SkyDome bullpen, Drabek, signed last winter to provide innings, has struggled all month. In four starts covering 12 2/3 innings, he was 0-3 with a 15.63 ERA and 30 hits.
"There's only one answer: I pitched bad," said Drabek.
Drabek survived only 53 pitches, retiring seven of 17 batters. Even given a quality outing by Mike Mussina on Saturday, Orioles starters surrendered 17 earned runs in 14 innings pitched in the series. They were outscored 12-1 in the first four innings.
"When you're going through what we're going through, everything is magnified," said Drabek.
Without Key, Kamieniecki and to a lesser extent Drabek, the rotation has completely blown apart. The starters' ERA has risen from 4.75 to 5.47 since May 29 due to a 29-game stretch that has included only three back-to-back starts of six innings or more. During the meltdown, the rotation has averaged 5 2/3 innings per start while absorbing a 6.88 ERA.
"I didn't know at the time because I was new, but there wasn't much backup within the system in case some guys go down," said Key, on the disabled list since May 21 with an irritated rotator cuff. "You don't plan on three guys going down. It's just a bad year to have injuries within your starting rotation when you don't have experienced backups. You're asking younger guys to come in and pitch at this level, but obviously they're not ready. It's unfair to them. Yet that's the state of the organization."
Pub Date: 6/29/98