Commentary

A season for the Birds

Orioles flying south despite opening 2010 with plenty of promise

Originally Published: May 4, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- Baltimore Orioles manager Dave Trembley spent 20 years of his life -- 2,782 games in all -- making out lineup cards in the minor leagues. A lot of those nights, he slept in places where cable TV was an extravagance, and a cup of coffee and a Danish wrapped in plastic qualified as a "continental breakfast.''

At age 58, Trembley is still the humble, next-door-neighbor type who looks people straight in the eye and calls them by their first name, so it's no surprise that he received lots of sympathy during the Orioles' nightmarish April. Old friends and acquaintances routinely dropped by to wish him well during batting practice, and his e-mail inbox was flooded with entreaties to "hang in there'' and "keep your chin up.''

[+] EnlargeDave Trembley
Brian J. Myers/US PresswireIs Dave Trembley's job as the Orioles' manager in jeopardy? That remains to be seen.
Last week at Camden Yards, several familiar faces offered moral support. Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who played for the Cubs' Double-A Pittsfield, Mass., affiliate in 1988 when Trembley was managing in Harrisburg, stopped to chat behind the cage. Derek Jeter also offered a few words of reassurance.

"Don't worry,'' Jeter told Trembley. "You have a lot of games to play.''

Depending on your perspective, that may or may not be a good thing.

A spring that began with promise in Baltimore took a quick turn south thanks to a lack of clutch hitting and a Kansas City Royals East-caliber bullpen. The Orioles were 4-18 before a weekend sweep of Boston brightened the mood.

Their reward? A trip to New York, where they lost 4-1 to CC Sabathia and the Yankees on Monday to fall to a major league worst 7-19. That's a serious head start toward the franchise's 13th consecutive losing season.

Things are bound to get better, if only because the Orioles' April and May schedule was scripted by horror-film director Wes Craven. The O's played six of their first nine games against Tampa Bay, then left for a road trip to Oakland and Seattle, which was followed by the current string of 16 straight games against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins.

Last year the Orioles went 7-29 against Boston and New York, and for some unknown reason they never play the A's well: They have a 24-61 record against Oakland since 2000 and haven't captured a season series from the A's since 1998.

But if the Orioles are going to dig their way out of this mess, salvage the season and perhaps save Trembley's job, they need contributions from both their young players and the veterans who are just passing through town.

All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts is out indefinitely with a strained abdominal muscle, and the Orioles lost outfielder Felix Pie for three months with a torn muscle in his back. Pie flopped as a hotshot Cubs prospect, but reworked his approach at the plate with help from Baltimore hitting coach Terry Crowley, and seemed to be on the verge of figuring it out at age 25.

The absences have created a ripple effect up and down the order. Center fielder Adam Jones, who hit second last season, is trying to fill the void at leadoff. And right fielder Nick Markakis, who hit primarily in the No. 3 hole in 2009, has been batting second of late.

The Orioles are 12th in the American League with 91 runs scored. They have a .298 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot, rank last in the league in walks, and are hitting .129 with runners in scoring position (17-for-132) in their 19 losses. Things would be even worse if not for inveterate grinder Ty Wigginton, who leads the team in several offensive categories.

Jones, who tends to take things to heart, admits that he's gone outside his comfort zone too frequently this season. Despite a 7-for-14 weekend against Boston, Jones is hitting .233 with a .258 OBP.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to hit a grand slam leading off the game,'' Jones said last week. "I'm really trying to force the issue instead of just playing the game the right way.''

It's hard for Baltimore's hitters to relax when no lead is safe. The Orioles have been outscored 48-30 in the seventh inning and beyond, and the bullpen already has six blown saves. Closer Mike Gonzalez, signed to a two-year, $12 million deal as a free agent, coughed up leads against Tampa Bay and Toronto in the first week before going on the disabled list with a left shoulder strain. Setup man Jim Johnson spontaneously combusted when asked to replace Gonzalez and was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk, and the late innings now belong to Alfredo Simon, Will Ohman, Matt Albers and company. Everyone but Don Stanhouse is in the mix.

Andy MacPhail, Baltimore's president of baseball operations, made four big offseason acquisitions, and they've been a mixed bag. Miguel Tejada has given the Orioles energy and some timely hits, and he's playing a better defensive third base since his return from a hip adductor strain. At one year and $6 million, he's not a bad option to babysit the position for prospect Josh Bell. Management is also delighted with pitcher Kevin Millwood, who deserves better than an 0-3 record. The Orioles have scored a total of 16 runs in Millwood's first six starts, but he keeps plugging away and giving Baltimore's young pitchers a veteran example to emulate.

At the opposite end of the MacPhail acquisition scale, there's Gonzalez and corner infielder Garrett Atkins. Atkins has already lost playing time to minor league call-up Rhyne Hughes, and he's done little to dispel his reputation as a "low-energy'' player.

"I wish I had a dollar for every time someone in Baltimore came up to me and said, 'What's the deal with Atkins?''' said a National League scout. "Four years ago, I thought he could contend for a batting title. When he stayed in the middle of the field and didn't try to hit home runs, he was one of the better hitters in the National League. It's like he became a different guy once he became arbitration-eligible.''

[+] EnlargeBrian Matusz
Jeff Griffith/US PresswireRookie Brian Matusz, 23, is projected to be the ace of the Orioles' staff in the years to come.
The long-term outlook isn't as grim as the Orioles' sad start might indicate. Rookie left-hander Brian Matusz has a veteran's feel for pitching and a knack for breaking bats. "Barring injury, this kid is going to pitch really well for a long time,'' Millwood said.

Chris Tillman threw a no-hitter for Triple-A Norfolk last week, and Jake Arrieta is 2-1 with a 1.16 ERA for the Tides. The Markakis-Jones-Reimold outfield combination should be fine, and catcher Matt Wieters has markedly improved his work behind the plate under the tutelage of new Orioles bench coach Jeff Datz.

The big question is whether Trembley will be around when the team turns the corner. In the first few weeks he hovered between "hot seat'' and "death watch,'' with Bobby Valentine, Buck Showalter, Phil Garner, Bob Melvin and Orioles minor league coordinator Brian Graham all bandied around in baseball circles as potential replacements. But MacPhail refused to succumb to panic, and owner Peter Angelos seems disinclined to pay two managers' salaries with his team already down 11½ games in the AL East. At any rate, the Orioles turned down the heat a bit with their weekend sweep of Boston.

"Right now we're going to spend all of our energy and completely focus on making the player personnel as good as we can make it,'' MacPhail said. "We know what our problems are. Now we're going to go about trying to solve them.''

One person familiar with the Orioles' situation said Trembley took the managing job with "stars in his eyes'' after his lengthy tenure in the minors. Trembley assumed that big leaguers would approach the game with the same zeal as all those prospects he managed in Bowie and Daytona, and that they'd buy into the more structured approach he brought to the job. But he never played pro ball, and that's a handy crutch for players who want to tune out the manager when things go wrong. Trembley refrains from bashing players by name in the press, but he's too often rewarded with haphazard baserunning and inattentive play in the field.

"Dave has a lot of energy, and he's very positive about the players,'' said a scout. "But he was a nice guy there as a coach before he took the managing job. Then all of a sudden he had to be a general, and the players are like, 'What happened to the nice guy?'"

On the advice of Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, Trembley tries to steer clear of blogs, newspapers and Internet critiques of his managing mistakes and his team's poor play. Like Cox, he doesn't want to let a bad mood affect his relations in the clubhouse. Trembley has also told his wife, Patti, that it might be best to avoid attending games at Camden Yards until the team begins playing better and Baltimore fans aren't quite as upset.

Before Trembley meets the press after games, he takes a drink of water and a deep breath in his office and reminds himself to answer questions candidly and respectfully, with no trace of defensiveness. Anyone who's waiting for him to pull a Hal McRae and hurl a small appliance in a fit of rage will be disappointed.

"To be perfectly honest, if anybody tells you they don't think about it and it doesn't bother them, I don't think they're telling the truth,'' Trembley said when asked about his job status. "But I do think there's a way to handle it. I never hide in my room.

"You can't point fingers, you can't make excuses and you can't feel sorry for yourself. I understand very clearly about accountability and responsibility. If I fail -- if I make mistakes -- I'll admit it. But everybody has to be accountable. It's not just the manager. It's the players as well.''

Each Friday, Trembley appears on a local radio station to offer his take on the Orioles' performance. The routine wasn't much fun in April. "I told the people there, 'I can't wait to go on your radio show when we've won seven in a row, because I'm going to be the same guy that I've been when we've lost seven or nine in a row. I just hope your questions are the same,'" Trembley said.

Of course, questions are never an issue where Orioles baseball is concerned. The challenge, as always, is finding the right answers.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer