Start of fall

The Baltimore Sun

The humidity thickens, the Ravens' preseason begins, kids prepare for a new school year and the Orioles downshift from mediocre to below bad.

Just another routine end of summer in Baltimore.

Maybe it's because of the traditionally difficult late-season schedule. Maybe the interminable length of the baseball season eventually catches up with a perpetually thin roster. Or maybe it's that there hasn't been anything to play for in a decade.

But since 1997, when the Orioles last had meaningful games in August and September, the team has been dreadful as its seasons have waned.

And given this month's performance - which included a record-setting 30-3 defeat last week - the trend is continuing.

Since the end of the 1997 season, the Orioles have compiled a 227-309 record - a .424 winning percentage - from Aug. 1 until the end of the baseball year. That includes an 8-16 run this month, highlighted by a six-game losing streak heading into tonight's series opener against baseball's worst team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Incredibly, the terrible late-season numbers aren't skewed by one or two bad seasons, such as 2002 when they lost 32 of their final 36.

Of the Orioles' 19 Augusts and Septembers dating to 1998 (including this August), the team has managed just two winning months: a 20-8 September in 1999 and an 18-10 September in 2004.

The Orioles haven't had a winning August in that period, with their best one coming in 1998 when they finished 14-14. The last time the team had a winning August and a winning September was in 1996, its first playoff appearance in 13 seasons.

There have been different managers and front office decision-makers and a revolving door of players - only third baseman Melvin Mora, second baseman Brian Roberts, designated hitter Jay Gibbons and pitcher Erik Bedard were on the team before 2004 - but the results are the same.

"It's something that I was aware of and I am going to have to sort out for myself," Orioles president Andy MacPhail said about the late struggles. "It's one of those things that you have to find out what it is and how to combat it."

Mike Flanagan, the Orioles' executive vice president, has seen the August and September drop-offs from a variety of perspectives. They've come while he's been pitching coach, a television analyst and a team executive. The only continuity is found in the causes, primarily the Orioles' position in the standings compared with their opponents'.

"I think there are a number of reasons," Flanagan said. "Teams that are in the race usually dominate the ones who aren't. And the ones who aren't usually are more concerned with doing player evaluations, and the focus can change to development and looking ahead.

"But I don't think that's the case this season. We think [the losing is] just a short blip on the screen."

Surely, baseball's unbalanced schedule has been a factor - especially in the American League East, where the Orioles play two perennial powerhouses, the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, a combined 36 times this season. They also get the solid Toronto Blue Jays and the always-scuffling Devil Rays 18 times each. Before 2001, they played their division rivals a dozen times each.

And, for divisional drama purposes, the majority of those games are played in the season's final two months. From July 27 on, the Orioles had 12 games against the Yankees and 13 against the Red Sox.

"Obviously, those guys are playing for their lives, and at this point, we are not," Flanagan said. "We're playing for credibility and respectability, and that's a different motivation."

After the Devil Rays leave town Thursday, the Orioles will play 22 of their remaining 30 games against teams with records of .500 or better entering yesterday, including 16 against the Red Sox, Yankees and the AL West-leading Los Angeles Angels.

"I think teams that are playing for something in September raise their game a little bit more than teams that aren't," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "I think the mind-set of teams playing for something in September may be a little bit stronger than those who aren't, and I think the weaknesses of those teams, when they play contending teams, are exploited without a doubt."

Trembley said it's possible that teams such as the Orioles, who haven't been in a pennant race during any of their players' tenures here, aren't yet mentally prepared for what it takes to make a late-season push. That's why, he said, the roster needs to be filled with players who demonstrate the proper mentality.

"I think it has to do with the makeup of a person. You have to have professional people, a lot of professional people, when you are playing for pride," Trembley said. "You need gamers, guys who are going to respect the team and the organization and do their best to represent the team and the fans. Otherwise the integrity of the team gets tainted. Otherwise, you'll end the season on a sour note, and that's not fun."

Another reason the Orioles have struggled recently at the end of seasons is simpler than a tough schedule. The organization hasn't been very deep, so as inevitable injuries and ineffectiveness occur, the big league club must fill its holes with inexperienced or lower-level players. Not only are those players more apt to feel the grind of a 162-game season, but in September, when rosters expand, there often aren't suitable replacements left in the minors.

MacPhail said that's one thing that has to change if the Orioles are going to be competitive in the late summer.

"One of the ways is to have reinforcements from the system making a difference," MacPhail said. "Obviously, that gets back to doing the best job we possibly can in scouting and player development."

In the Orioles' heyday, they were often considered a great closing team, one that thrived as the season progressed. But those clubs were built on pitching and defense. That hasn't been the same this decade, especially the pitching.

"That wins games all six months. If you want to talk about a basic philosophy, that's a basic philosophy that works for six months," Hall of Famer and Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer said. "We don't have that philosophy. Trembley can talk about it, but it's not there. If you're going to play for six months, you better have good pitching and good defense. I don't think we've had it."

Those who currently are in the Orioles uniform, however, don't think they automatically will fall into the same downward trend as recent teams - even if they've sputtered embarrassingly lately.

"We're not going to quit. This is a different group of guys," first baseman Kevin Millar said Sunday after the Minnesota Twins' four-game sweep at Camden Yards. "We're just going through a stretch. We're just going through a time right now. These times make you tougher as ballplayers."

It's been said before, and for the past nine years, the late-season results are the same. With a little more than a month remaining, the Orioles are left playing for pride and for a chance to alter a postseason picture they won't be a part of.

"Up until recently, we felt this team was actually looking forward to playing the role of spoilers," Flanagan said. "And we think they will again."

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