SEATTLE - The daily struggle has extended beyond meshing timely hitting with solid pitching and the timeless mystery of playing on the road. The Orioles, looking their age, now find themselves playing short. Healthy bodies have become a luxury.
A mostly familiar lineup lost last night, 11-4, to the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field, leaving the Orioles with their sixth consecutive defeat and a 10-28 road record.
Jason Johnson's winless streak extended to 10 starts, as he was thrashed by rallies of three and four runs. While his performance did little to give the Orioles a chance, Johnson began the game with diminished support on the bench and in the bullpen.
Another difficult start led to a six-run deficit the gimpy Orioles could not overcome. They tumbled to a season-worst 10 games below .500 (30-40) only a week after a six-game winning streak had tempted them with the possibility of complicating a crowded American League East race.
Johnson's 5 1/3 innings included nine hits, seven earned runs and 116 pitches. He has surrendered 25 earned runs in 23 1/3 innings covering his past four starts; the starting rotation's ERA jumped to 10.13 and its record fell to 1-6 in the past nine games.
"It's very obvious we're short right now," said manager Mike Hargrove. "But I think when you start trying to draw distinctions between playing short and not playing well, you're offering excuses."
First baseman Will Clark, who is bothered by a sore right shoulder, said, "I don't see any lack of hustle. Guys who are coming in from the bullpen are trying to get guys out. When you go through a bad stretch like we are, everything is magnified. Leave a mistake over the plate and it's a big homer - a three-run homer or a grand slam.
"We've got some walking wounded, but we're still going out there."
Sensitive to being referred to as a brittle, graybeard team, the Orioles are reluctant to divulge their health-related limitations. They no longer need to because their problems have become so obvious.
Center fielder Brady Anderson missed two of three games in Oakland with a sore right quadriceps. Though back in Wednesday's lineup, Anderson was unable to cut off a ball that rolled past him in right-center field for a triple and was hitless in seven at-bats since returning to the lineup.
Third baseman Cal Ripken, pulled from the seventh inning of Wednesday's 10-3 loss, appears to be dragging and was inserted as designated hitter for the fourth time this season. Unable to shake pain that has seared his left leg for much of the season, he was thrown out by four steps on a hard-hit grounder that carried Mariners second baseman David Bell into shallow center field.
Almost six weeks have passed since a burning, numbing sensation began coursing down the outside of Ripken's left leg. An irritated nerve was supposed to calm down after six weeks. Any improvement, however, has been minor.
Utility player Mark Lewis again started at second base in place of Delino DeShields, who has been bothered by a sore thigh. Lewis has started three of the Orioles' past nine games after starting only twice the previous four weeks.
Jamie Moyer's presence wouldn't have otherwise guaranteed the left-handed-hitting DeShields a night off, as he entered hitting .364 against left-handed pitching.
Hargrove's tactics are now governed as much by player availability as game situations. During Monday's 13-12 loss to the Athletics, he couldn't use Harold Baines to pinch hit in a critical ninth-inning situation because he had no spare outfielder to replace Luis Matos. Making his major-league debut, the center fielder grounded out weakly as the rally passed.
The shortfall in the bullpen has become extreme in the past week. Last night Hargrove worked with five relievers because Calvin Maduro's stiff right elbow returned him to the disabled list and Mike Trombley's strep throat kept him under a doctor's supervision.
Hargrove had Chuck McElroy warm during the Mariners' four-run fourth inning but opted not to make a change as Seattle grabbed a 7-1 lead. Johnson returned for a fifth inning as the bullpen idled.
None of this is new. The Orioles have shown a lack of trust in their Triple-A arms, whether it be through a reluctance to promote a starting pitcher or use Gabe Molina, who was recalled to replace Maduro.
A possible win vanished Tuesday when, because of a depleted bullpen, Hargrove admitted pushing Sidney Ponson farther than under normal circumstances. Rather than dip into his bullpen, Hargrove allowed Ponson to try to navigate the entire eighth inning himself because none of his three setup men - Alan Mills, Trombley and Buddy Groom - was available.
Ponson was charged with four earned runs in the inning that turned a 5-4 lead into his 8-5 loss.
At least last night spared the third-act suspense. The Mariners pounded Johnson with Jay Buhner's three-run homer in the second inning that erased a 1-0 Orioles advantage. (The Orioles have scored first in each of their past four losses, blowing a total of six leads.)
After Lewis' error on John Olerud's leadoff grounder in the fourth and a strikeout of shortstop Alex Rodriguez, Johnson allowed four singles on four consecutive pitches to John Mabry, Joe Oliver, Bell and Rickey Henderson. Mike Cameron's sacrifice fly completed the four-run inning.
"I think I saw Jason probably try too hard that inning," Hargrove said. "You can't force your talent to work. You have to let it happen."
Edgar Martinez capped the Mariners' rout with a grand slam off Groom in the eighth inning. It was the ninth homer allowed by the Orioles in the past three games.
"Sometimes you have to credit who you're playing," Anderson said. "We played the A's and it seemed like they're scoring 10 runs a game. That's probably because they are scoring 10 runs a game."
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Safeco Field, Seattle
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (3-4, 6.88) vs. Mariners' Gil Meche (3-4, 3.54)