Orioles manager Mike Hargrove senses that his younger, less experienced players have become fatigued as the innings and games add considerable weight to their seasons.
Or maybe they're just tired of losing.
If that's true, they're in the wrong place this weekend. Unfazed by an early two-run deficit last night, the Anaheim Angels homered twice off Sean Douglass and used a nice recovery from rookie starter John Lackey to win their eighth consecutive game, 6-3, before 24,045 at Camden Yards.
With the Orioles (64-75) in a major tailspin since reaching .500 two weeks ago, they didn't need one of baseball's hottest clubs occupying the visitors' dugout. Even the schedule has turned against them.
Who's next, the team chaplain?
The Angels, who are leading the American League's wild-card race by four games, are trying to complete their second sweep of the Orioles in 10 days. Lackey has beaten them twice, retiring 12 in a row last night before Mike Bordick homered in the fifth, and Mickey Callaway will attempt to join him tonight.
"It's been a tough stretch for us," Bordick said. "I think we've been playing a little bit better baseball of late, but it's harder when you're going against teams that are in the playoff hunt."
Douglass (0-2) allowed two runs in the second inning and one in the third to lose the lead. Taking Scott Erickson's place in the rotation, he was charged with four runs and walked six in five innings, as the Angels improved their franchise-best record to 86-54. Steve Bechler made his major-league debut in the sixth with the Orioles trailing 4-3.
With the win, the Angels continued to nip at Oakland's heels in the AL West. The Orioles, meanwhile, have fallen 11 games below .500 for the first time since the end of last season.
"We've recovered from some down times throughout the year," Bordick said, after the Orioles were officially eliminated from the division race. "We've learned from all those experiences. This is a bigger bump, but I think we're going to be fine and finish on a positive note."
The Orioles have lost 12 of their past 13 games, but Hargrove said the mounting defeats aren't ruining a season that had a much better feel last month.
"You have to realize where this club is and where it's going," he said. "I think most people expected us to play the whole season like the last two weeks. I don't think it tarnishes what we've been able to accomplish. ... We've made a lot of progress, we've done a lot of good things, we've found out a lot of things we needed to find out and identified a lot of the areas we need to identify."
Hargrove traces the collective slump to a roster sprinkled with players who are still adjusting to the rigors of a 162-game commitment. The list includes tonight's starter, Rodrigo Lopez, who pitched in the Mexican Winter League and didn't get much rest before spring training.
"I think it's a very legitimate concern," he said. "You look at a lot of the people we have in the lineup and a lot of the people we have pitching, and this is the first season when they've played this far. You talk about the steps you have to take, and this is one of them - learning how to play through September.
"A lot of our guys are tired, especially our pitchers, and it's not because of extended use. You take a guy like John Stephens or Rodrigo Lopez, Rick Bauer, [Jorge] Julio - all of these guys are learning that the season is 40 games longer than it ever has been for them, and it's a learning experience."
A wild pitch and run-scoring double by Jay Gibbons provided a 2-0 lead in the first inning. Lackey put runners on the corners with none out but almost escaped by getting the next two batters to pop up. He bounced a pitch past catcher Bengie Molina to score Jerry Hairston, and Gibbons interrupted a 4-for-36 slump with his 57th RBI.
The bats went silent until Bordick connected with two outs in the fifth inning. By then, the Angels had reached Douglass for a two-run homer by Adam Kennedy that tied the game in the second, a run-scoring single by Brad Fullmer and a 415-foot homer by Garret Anderson leading off the fifth.
Hargrove went to the mound after Fullmer's single and gave a stern lecture. Geronimo Gil, Tony Batista and Hairston joined him, but Hargrove did all the talking -- even after plate umpire Gary Cederstrom approached them and waited patiently. Douglass, who threw 104 pitches, needed only three to strike out Tim Salmon after Hargrove's visit.
"The gist of it was there's nobody out there but him with the ball and he's got to get the job done, so just relax and throw strikes," Hargrove said. "It may have been a little more forceful than that, but he responded well."
Bechler, who left after issuing a leadoff walk to David Eckstein in the eighth, was charged with a run when Fullmer grounded a two-out, bases-loaded single to right off Willis Roberts. Salmon also singled to right, but Cederstrom waved off an apparent run when Gibbons threw out Fullmer at third before Anderson crossed the plate.
"It was a little tough. I'm not used to a lot of people," Bechler said. "I was just trying to focus on the glove."