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Many bumps in O's downward road

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TORONTO - Catcher Javy Lopez wants none of the blame.

Lopez is familiar with his supposed role in the Orioles' dramatic tumble from first place in the American League East, how the team never recovered from his two-month stay on the disabled list. They led the division when a foul ball shattered a bone in his right hand May 24. Today they are only seven games from the bottom.

"I don't see any one turning point," he said. "Of course, when I was hurt, I saw how the team fell to second place and then third. But I don't want to say I was the reason. If I was the reason, when I started playing again, we should be in a good position right now, and we're not."

Losing 30 times in 42 games will put a team in a bad frame of mind. Going 14-30 since the break, the second-worst record in the league, will bring all sorts of theories concerning what went wrong. Falling a season-worst nine games below .500 will have fingers pointed in all directions.

The Orioles spent 62 straight days in sole possession of first place, beginning April 23, and were 14 games above .500, but they're careening toward their eighth straight season with a losing record. When the pitching is right, the hitting disappears. When they score some runs, they can't hold a lead.

They've juggled the lineup and rotation, changed managers, vowed to keep fighting. But they harder they try, the harder they fall.

Beginning June 22, the Orioles have gone 19-42, the second-worst record in the majors. Their 42-28 record through June 21 was the third-best in baseball. Since then, they went from two games ahead in the division to 15 1/2 behind.

"We lost the chemistry on the team and things haven't been the same," Lopez said. "The players aren't playing the same. There's no inspiration, motivation. We're a team. We can't play as individuals. And I include myself as a player who's not contributing to the chemistry of the team."

Most players believe the Orioles weren't as good as those 62 straight days suggested. They expected some trades before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, either to bolster the offense or to bring a front-line starting pitcher, but the only move was obtaining outfielder Eric Byrnes from Colorado for Larry Bigbie.

"I think everyone was hoping that something would happen," Rafael Palmeiro said.

Trouble off field, too

Palmeiro provided a major distraction with his failed steroid test and 10-day suspension, but he wasn't the first player to gain unwanted attention. Pitcher Sidney Ponson spent 11 days in jail in Aruba after an altercation on Christmas Day. He allegedly punched a local judge, and an entire team eventually went down.

Ponson has experienced two alcohol-related arrests since January, giving him a slim lead over pitcher Eric DuBose. Sam Perlozzo replaced Lee Mazzilli as manager on Aug. 4. A staph infection put Sammy Sosa on the disabled list for three weeks but is hardly remembered after everything else that's transpired.

"I don't know if [distractions] have had an impact or not," Palmeiro said. "I know when Sam took over the team, we played well the first couple of weeks and almost everything had happened at that time."

Palmeiro is 2-for-26 since the suspension, but he's not the only one scuffling. The Orioles rank 27th in the majors in runs scored over the second half, last in the league. They have totaled more than 100 fewer than the first-place Boston Red Sox.

Including last night's 7-2 loss, they have scored four runs or fewer in 12 of their past 17 games and accumulated 51. They reached double figures in hits only four times and batted .240 (137-for-570). No longer able to function in the clutch, they rank 27th in the majors with a .231 average with runners in scoring position since the break. They were eighth at .278 the first half.

"We've struggled every which way," Palmeiro said.

Interleague play has been problematic for the Orioles since its inception, and Lopez points to a poor showing against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds that concluded a four-city road trip in June. The Orioles lost both series after splitting four games with the Red Sox and taking two of three from the Detroit Tigers.

"Since those two series, our team started going down," Lopez said. "There's no way we should have lost. With the team we have and the way we were going, we should have swept them. And if we do, we separate ourselves from Boston."

Twelve days after the final game against the Reds, the Orioles no longer were in first place.

Television analyst Buck Martinez believes they went into Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park expecting to load up on home runs and victories. "It's a very humbling game," he said. "You better not go half-stepping into anywhere. You'll get your butt handed to you in a heartbeat."

Injuries could be blamed, especially the sprained ligament in Erik Bedard's left knee that cost him about nine starts. Bedard was 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA. The Orioles were 29-16 with a 4.01 ERA before the injury. At the break, they were 18-24 with a 4.85 ERA without him.

"When he went down, everybody went 'whoa.' He was pitching so well and he was so dominant," Martinez said. "Not that it's all on his shoulders, but it certainly had a domino effect on the team, especially the bullpen. And losing Javy was a big blow. He was a real presence in the lineup, even when he wasn't tearing it up at that point."

The Orioles were 28-16 and batting .290 as a team before Lopez's injury, averaging 5.4 runs a game. At the break, they were 19-24, hitting .264 and averaging 4.5 runs without him.

Luis Matos missed 35 games, Larry Bigbie 16. The Orioles were 45-32 and hitting .284 with Melvin Mora healthy, but went 2-8 and batted .227 in his absence.

"When everybody was getting back, we thought things would change for the better and they changed for the worse," Matos said. "It just happened so quick."

"Slowly," Palmeiro said, "it started deteriorating."

Half empty

After going 2-2 in Seattle to begin the second half, the Orioles won their series opener in Minnesota. But closer B.J. Ryan blew a save and Jason Grimsley yielded a walkoff home run, leading to two defeats, and the Orioles were swept by Tampa Bay.

The following month, they took a 4-1 lead in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians before Casey Blake hit a three-run homer off Todd Williams, and the Orioles eventually were swept.

"When we lose," Matos said, "we don't recuperate very quickly."

The Orioles have 14 more games against the Red Sox and New York Yankees. They also have six left with the Devil Rays, who are threatening to jump into fourth place. Prone to late swoons in the past, the Orioles could black out in September.

"We've got a month left," Matos said. "We can't think that way or it's going to be a long last month."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site/Time: Toronto/7:07

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/1090 AM

Starters: Orioles' Bruce Chen (10-8, 3.95) vs. Blue Jays' Gustavo Chacin (11-7, 3.62)

Palmeiro tries plugs

Rafael Palmeiro attempts to muffle the boos in Toronto as the skidding Orioles fall again, 7-2. Page 3E

Total collapse

Since the Orioles reached a season-high 14 games above .500 at 42-28 on June 21, they have the second-worst record in baseball (*-late game).

Team W-L Pct. Royals .........17-43 ...... .283

Orioles .........19-42 ...... .311

Pirates ......... 23-40 ...... .365

Mariners* .... 24-36 ...... .400

Rangers ........ 26-38 ...... .406

Games .......... 1-70 ........ 71-130

Average ........ .285 ........ .256

Runs/game ...... 5.3 ......... 3.7

ERA ............. 4.17 ........ 5.47

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