It's still progress

The Baltimore Sun

The Orioles have completed the second stop on their road trip back to reality, which has featured five losses in six games and a number of fine pitching performances delivered for naught.

They have four games left in Kansas City before they play the division-leading Boston Red Sox on Monday, so a weekend recovery is not out the question, but this seems like as good a time as any to bail on the notion that 2008 might be some kind of miracle season.

I'm tempted to go a step further and announce that I'm giving up on the ballclub - particularly after that little bit of reverse psychology worked so well with Daniel Cabrera during spring training - but let's not get carried away. Though the past week has been disappointing for Orioles fans, no one should consider the team a disappointment simply because it's starting to play the way a lot of people expected it to play in the first place.

The front office spent the off-season shoring up the pitching staff, largely at the expense of the middle of the batting order. Nobody missed Miguel Tejada in April, but you had to figure the Orioles would miss him eventually. And, if you haven't been keeping track, Miggi was batting .345 with five homers and 25 RBIs for the Houston Astros going into last night's game against the Nationals.

This was never going to be a dynamic offensive team. The departure of Tejada figured to cost Nick Markakis a lot of hittable pitches, and that has come to pass. Kevin Millar was miscast as a go-to cleanup hitter, which eventually forced manager Dave Trembley to turn to Aubrey Huff, who isn't going to channel Mickey Mantle very often, either.

Frustrating as it might seem after such a heady April, the team that is struggling so hard to score runs right now is pretty much the team Andy MacPhail built with the deals that sent Tejada to Houston and Erik Bedard to Seattle.

MacPhail was quite up front with his desire to stock the organization with pitching prospects and build toward the day when the Orioles could punch up the batting order through future trades or free agency. It was no accident that seven of the 10 players he got in the two trades were pitchers.

The wisdom of that strategy has been proven by the solid performance of the rebuilt bullpen, but the rejuvenated pitching staff has only magnified the club's offensive deficiencies.

Once again yesterday, Jeremy Guthrie pitched well enough to win and ended up with a no-decision. He pitched into the sixth inning for the seventh time in seven starts. He had given up no more than three earned runs in any of his starts until yesterday, when he left with three runs on the board and ended up getting charged with one more after Jamie Walker faltered again.

Guthrie has gotten one victory in those seven starts. Cabrera has been the most effective pitcher in the rotation since getting knocked around in his first start of the season, but he has just two victories. Young Garrett Olson just came up and pitched two outstanding games, but ended up a winner in only one of them. He might have to get used to that.

Believe it or not, the plan is working. The pitching staff is much improved and still has upside potential. The batting order is going to be a project for the next couple of years.

Even so, give Orioles hitters some credit for being resourceful at times and resilient at others. They staged a three-run rally in the eighth inning yesterday to take the lead before the A's tied the game on an unearned run and won in extra innings. There were a number of late comebacks and big hits on the way to an uplifting April that raised the bar on this rebuilding season.

Nothing has really changed. This is a team with almost no margin for error, as evidenced by a game that turned south yesterday after an error by Melvin Mora put the potential tying run on base after the big rally in the eighth inning.

It might not look like it right now, but the Orioles still are moving in the right direction. They're just keeping it real.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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