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8 Upper

The Early Birds

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/12/2000

Early April is not the best time to start changing one's mind about baseball subjects. The season has barely begun, and the statistical principle that small samples yield weird results rules the day: People carry batting averages in the .600s and earned-run averages in the 80s. As of this writing, Mike Mussina has the worst record on the Orioles pitching staff, and Charles Johnson leads the American League in home runs. Mo Vaughn has more stolen bases than Brady Anderson. Will Clark has not missed a single game due to injury.

Nevertheless, it was on Saturday, April 8, that I began to modify my thinking about the 2000 Orioles, and how they fit into the world of major-league baseball. There was much to like about the O's that day -- they had just won their fourth straight game, a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers, with Anderson laying down two perfect sacrifice bunts to help chip out the win. But that wasn't what caught my attention.

Instead, I was preoccupied with the news from the day before. When I'd gone to bed on Friday, before the West Coast games ended, the record for total home runs in a single day -- 55, set last Aug. 13 -- had been under siege. The O's and the Tigers had hit nine that night; the Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays had combined for seven. And in the late innings of Pacific Daylight Time, Troy Glaus, Carl Everett, Brian Daubach, Ray Durham, and Shane Spencer all jumped on the bandwagon. In the end, major-league hitters clouted a combined 57 homers, with American Leaguers accounting for a league-record 36.

There are many different ways to interpret this eruption. The dark-minded fan, seeing the carnage, can conclude that the baseballs remain juiced; if anything, they've replaced the rabbit in the ball with some lighter and springier animal, such as a kangaroo rat (genus Dipodomys). More positively disposed folks can remind us that today's ballplayers, blessed by advances in the fields of nutritional science and weight training, can whack the ball more forcefully than previous generations ever imagined. Both theories have their points -- though the latter doesn't quite account for the contributions of Omar Vizquel, Mike Bordick, and Damon Buford to the record tally.

Certainly, something in the nature of home-run hitting has changed. When a batter swings and connects, he no longer legs it up the line, dropping the bat as he goes. Instead, he pauses on the follow-through, holding his pose, then flicks the bat away before breaking into a jog. I do not describe this as an affronted traditionalist -- you hit it, you earn it, I say -- but merely as an observer. Ten years ago, Barry Bonds was universally reviled for this sort of behavior. But 10 years ago, even Bonds' most majestic-looking shots would sometimes land short of the fence while he was admiring them. Today's sluggers are innocent of such presumption; they know when they hit it that the ball is gone, and far gone. The home runs that Friday night were penetrating to the deepest parts of the ballparks, bouncing off architectural features I'd never noticed before.

But the record-breaking night had less to do with the hitters than it did with the schedule. It was not an accident that

the barrage took place at the end of Opening Week: With most teams starting their seasons that Monday or Tuesday, Friday was when the pitching rotations finally cycled around to the back end. Just as the aces had taken the hill for Opening Day duels, the fourth or fifth starters took their turn April 7, squaring off against other fourth or fifth starters -- Dave Mlicki against Calvin Maduro, Pete Schourek against Jason Dickson, Mark Clark against Frank Castillo. Factor in a week's wear and tear on the bullpens, and suddenly things get ugly.

And when the game gets ugly, the Orioles don't look so bad. They are old and slow, they can't cover much ground, and half of them are playing out of position. But they can hit the bejesus out of bad pitching. Measured against some Platonic ideal of baseball, their glass is half-full at best. Measured against the rest of the league . . . well, there are a lot of dry glasses out there.

Nowhere is this more true than in the pitching. With Scott Erickson recovering from surgery and Jason Johnson trying to recover his form in Triple A, the O's rotation is a shambles. Sidney Ponson, young and erratic, is now the No. 2 starter. Slots three through five are occupied by Pat Rapp, Maduro, and Jose Mercedes -- retreads, one and all. All that manager Mike Hargrove can do is send them out there, duck, and hope they don't take too much of a beating.

Most other managers, though, are just as busy ducking and praying. Ponson was tagged for six runs in his debut, as was Maduro; Mercedes gave up four in five innings. But they kept the strain off the bullpen, and they went undefeated. The other teams' guys pitched worse.

Ugly times call for ugly teams. Last year, the Boston Red Sox made it to the American League Championship Series -- and led the league in ERA! -- using Pedro Martinez and a committee of shaky starters (including, oddly enough, Pat Rapp). As I write this, on Monday, April 10, the Orioles are 5-1 and in first place in the American League East; they are mathematically guaranteed to still be in first when this paper hits the streets Wednesday, and to sport a winning record at least until lunchtime Friday. Things still could collapse, of course. They also started 5-1 in 1998, in ex-manager Ray Miller's first season. But even one week's worth of victory is better than none at all.

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