O's crawl into break after loss to Rangers

The Baltimore Sun

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Before leaving the clubhouse and beginning his trip home for a much-needed break, Jay Payton turned to teammate Jamie Walker and discussed all the ways things could have turned out differently in his pivotal at-bat in the eighth inning yesterday.

If he had just hit Frank Francisco's pitch three feet to the right, he would have had a go-ahead single. Three feet to the left would have also produced the same result. But, instead, Payton hit a hard groundball right at Texas Rangers shortstop Ramon Vazquez, who started the routine, inning-ending double play that thwarted the Orioles' last scoring chance.

In many ways, the Orioles' 2-1 loss in front of an announced 22,843 at Ameriquest Field served as a microcosm for a disappointing first half.

It featured a series of missed opportunities for the visitors, who stranded eight runners, were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and hit into three double plays. It also featured another uneven performance by Daniel Cabrera, who threw plenty of good pitches, but was left to lament a 2-0, sixth-inning fastball that Kenny Lofton laced into the right-field seats for the game-winning run.

The loss, which ended their road trip with a 3-4 record, cost them the series and was their 18th defeat in 26 one-run games.

"It's been the case all year," said Payton, who also grounded out in the sixth inning with the bases loaded. "All these one-run losses, we were basically one big hit away. Unfortunately, that kind of summed up the first half for us."

The Orioles packed their bags quickly in the clubhouse, and most went their separate ways. Second baseman Brian Roberts, who will represent the Orioles tomorrow as the club's lone All-Star, might have been the only player with baseball on his mind.

The next three days will serve as separation from a tumultuous first half when the Orioles' problems extended deeper than a 38-49 record. Manager Sam Perlozzo was fired, and the organization's top choice to replace him, Joe Girardi, turned down the club's offer. Miguel Tejada, the team's most accomplished hitter, fractured his wrist and went on the disabled list, likely nullifying any chance for the Orioles to trade him.

The revamped bullpen sprung several leaks, and the offense never got started. They have scored the third fewest runs in the American League.

In their stretch of nine consecutive losing seasons, the Orioles have had a worse record at the All-Star break only three times. They are 15 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox in the American League East and closer to last place (four games ahead of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) than third place (five games behind the New York Yankees).

Only the Devil Rays (34-53), Rangers (38-50) and Kansas City Royals (38-50) have worse records than the Orioles in the AL. And the Orioles easily could have the same record as the latter two, but their June 28 game against the Yankees was suspended in the eighth inning with them trailing by two runs and will be resumed later this month.

The Orioles have played better under interim manager Dave Trembley, who is 9-9 at the helm of the club. But some of the problems that hampered the team in the first half, mainly a lack of timely hitting, haven't gone away.

In the three-game series against the Rangers, who have the second worst ERA in the majors, the Orioles managed seven runs despite collecting a respectable 25 hits. They stranded 24 runners and were a combined 3-for-22 with runners in scoring position. In the process, they wasted two quality pitching performances from Cabrera and Jeremy Guthrie, while needing Erik Bedard's extraordinary one to take a game in the series.

"All I heard coming into this series and this ballpark was it was [a] hitter-friendly place," Trembley said. "It seemed like pitching dominated."

The Orioles got a run in the first when Nick Markakis singled in Roberts, but they were stymied the rest of the way by Texas starter Kevin Millwood (6-7) and four relievers, including Eric Gagne, who pitched a perfect ninth for his 12th save. The Orioles got their leadoff man on from the fifth to the seventh but didn't score. Then there was the eighth-inning rally that was snuffed on Payton's double play.

"He's going to throw something around the plate. I know that," said Payton, a notorious free swinger. "I was up there being aggressive. I didn't hit it bad. I think I've hit in one or two double plays all year like that. That's the last thing I was thinking of. ... This game is about 60 percent skill, 40 percent luck, and I didn't have any luck today."

After the first inning, when Cabrera allowed an RBI single to Marlon Byrd to tie the game, the Orioles' starter performed solid damage control, stranding two runners in the second and leaving the bases loaded in the fourth with the help of a diving catch by first baseman Kevin Millar.

None of the five walks he issued - which countered his eight strikeouts - came around to score, but Cabrera's tendency to fall behind did hurt him in the sixth against Lofton. The Rangers veteran was sitting on a 2-0 fastball and hit it a long way for his sixth home run.

Cabrera, who worked with Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer last week, did make some strides yesterday, but the loss left him 6-10 at the break with a 5.04 ERA.

"I'm looking to be consistent and be more strong and win some games for my team," Cabrera said.

That should be the mantra of the entire team as it heads into the second half.


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