In final score, players move past blowouts

The Baltimore Sun

In a few hours Wednesday evening, a quietly mediocre season erupted into a debacle for mass consumption as the Orioles lost, 30-3, to the Texas Rangers.

The cliche in sports says that every loss is just one game and that professionals must forget them quickly. But can a defeat be so grisly that it makes the rebound impossible?

Not according to Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan, who once started a game against the last-place Toronto Blue Jays that ended in a 24-10 defeat. In his next start, he struck out 13 in a nine-inning no-decision against a fearsome Boston Red Sox offense. In the one after that, he beat the same Blue Jays, 3-1, in a complete game.

"So I guess it didn't hurt me too much," he said jokingly.

Flanagan said that as hard as it may be to believe, most athletes don't dwell on ugly defeats. "It's such an anomaly, but they do happen every two or three years," he said, "and you tell yourself that was one loss ... period."

Current and former athletes and sports psychologists agree that such "in-the-moment" thinking is vital. Professional athletes are predisposed to rebounding from failure. It's one of the reasons they have climbed as high as they have in their profession.

"You don't get to the major leagues unless you've already developed a thick skin and mental toughness," said Dr. Joel Fish, a Philadelphia-based sports psychologist who works with the Phillies, 76ers, Eagles and Flyers. "If you don't have those mental skills, you probably never would have made it."

Flanagan agreed.

"A game like that is so ridiculous that you almost are writing it off even as it's happening. You just accept that nothing is going to go your way that night," he said.

Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts said he almost had to laugh at the margin.

"Of course, people are going to laugh about it and say, 'Is that even possible?' or 'How did that happen?' " he said. "That's just the way it is. It was just one of those nights. It's not like we were a joke. We didn't kick balls around, make 15 errors. It was just one of those nights where nothing went right for us and everything went right for them. That's part of the game."

That mentality helps explain why baseball players get over crises quickly, Fish said. Their sport demands that they re-enter routines the next day. They're not lying when they say there's always another game.

"The rhythm of baseball is such that those cliches aren't really cliches," he said. "Every once in a while, they encounter a game like this that's absurd in nature. But they understand that that's part of the rhythm."

Certainly, the Orioles said as much yesterday.

"Any way you look at it, a loss is a loss, no matter what the score is," Aubrey Huff said. "Who cares? I went home, had a glass of wine and [went to sleep]. I didn't even look [at the highlights]."

Fish said he would survey the clubhouse to make sure the loss didn't traumatize individual players. But because many were responsible, he said he wouldn't worry as much as he would if one pitcher had given up five runs in the ninth to lose a key game.

Former Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey agreed.

"A 7-6 game hurts worse because you feel like you had some control," said Dempsey, who played with Flanagan in the 24-10 loss to Toronto. "But something like this, they had no control over. It's almost like it isn't even a real ballgame at some point. You just try to get it over as quick as possible."

On losing track

A review of the worst losses in baseball history produces several conclusions.

Teams that lose that badly tend to be in the middle of poor overall runs. Catastrophic defeats don't necessarily signal the beginning of such streaks. They seem more like symptoms.

For example, the 1985 New York Mets had just lost three of four to their division rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, before they lost, 26-7, to the Philadelphia Phillies on June 11. They went on to lose seven of eight.

If they could take any solace, maybe it was in the 10 runs reliever Calvin Schiraldi allowed over 1 1/3 innings. Schiraldi was dispatched to Boston after the season, and the next autumn, the Mets beat him in Game 6 and Game 7 to win the World Series.

When the Phillies lost, 22-3, to the Cincinnati Reds on Sept. 4, 1999, they were in the midst of losing 18 of 19.

On Sept. 14, 1987, the Orioles allowed a single-game record 10 home runs to the Blue Jays and lost, 18-3. They dropped 17 of 18 between the end of August and the middle of September as they plummeted to a 67-95 record.

On the other hand, horrible losses don't only happen to bad teams.

The Orioles' worst defeat before Wednesday, a 26-7 loss to the Rangers on April 19, 1996, came in the middle of a six-game losing streak in which the Orioles were outscored 68-34. But they made the playoffs as the wild card.

The 2003 Florida Marlins lost, 25-8, to the Boston Red Sox on June 27. In October, they beat the New York Yankees to win the World Series.

The principle applies across sports. Many naysayers buried the Ravens after an ugly Thursday night defeat last season in Cincinnati in which they allowed a flea flicker for a touchdown, committed a drive-killing holding penalty, missed a 29-yard field goal and lost return specialist B.J. Sams to a broken leg.

But they followed with four resounding victories on the way to a 13-3 record.

Asked about the Orioles' 30-3 loss, several Ravens speculated that baseball players are set up to rebound more easily because they play so many games.

"The only good thing is you can forget it by playing the next game," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "Baseball's lucky. They get to come back the next night and play. We have to wait a whole week. Just play the next game and get that one as far away as possible."

Wake-up call?

Throughout sports history, harrowing defeats have proceeded great triumphs.

"If there are cracks in the foundation, a bad loss might widen them," Fish said. "But it can serve as a wake-up call. Guys will say, 'Hey, that's unacceptable and each and every one of us needs to make sure it never happens again.' "

Consider the 1991 Duke basketball team. It had been humiliated, 103-73, by Nevada-Las Vegas in the previous year's NCAA final. But in the 1991 semifinals, the Blue Devils beat an even stronger UNLV team.

Finally, think about the final series of the Orioles' 1982 season. They had won three straight from Milwaukee and needed only one more win to make the playoffs. Future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer took the mound in the season finale and ... the Orioles got shellacked, 10-2, in one of the most emotional defeats in club history.

What happened the next year? Well, Flanagan could show you his World Series ring to answer that one.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Jamison Hensley, Edward Lee, Don Markus and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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