The team with the worst record in the major leagues at this time of the year is almost always lifelessly trudging toward the finish line. It is mailing the games in and counting down the days until the end of the season.
The Orioles have the worst record in baseball at 39-74. Yet they look nothing like a team playing out the string. In fact, if you didn't know better, you might think the Orioles were in the thick of the American League East race rather than trailing the Yankees by 30 ½ games and being just eight losses away from a 13th consecutive losing season.
What a difference changing managers has made for the Orioles.
Buck Showalter took over for interim skipper Juan Samuel eight days ago and the Orioles have been a different team, going 7-1. While it is true that even the worst of teams will have at least one good stretch during a 162-game season, everyone in the Orioles' clubhouse agrees that things are different since Showalter left the ESPN studios in Bristol to return to the dugout for the first time since being fired by the Rangers at the end of the 2006 season.
"It's the same players who have been here, but the results are different and the attitude is different," left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez said. "What does that tell you? It's just a different atmosphere than it's been all season. There's accountability now. We know if we don't do things the right way, the way they are supposed to be done, that (Showalter) is going to kick our butts."
"Everyone is focused on playing the game the right way and we're playing with a lot of energy," outfielder Felix Pie said.
Showalter, though, refuses to buy into the idea that he is responsible for any kind of instant turnaround for a moribund franchise. He quickly points out that second baseman and leadoff hitter Brian Roberts is healthy for the first time all season after missing most of the year with a back injury and catcher Matt Wieters and designated hitter Luke Scott have also gotten over aches and pains that have hampered them at various points during the year.
"I think if the other guys who managed this club had those guys all seasons that things would have been different for them," Showalter said, referring to Dave Trembley, who was fired on June 4 when the Orioles were 15-39, and Samuel was promoted as interim manager. "The health of your players goes such a long way in determining the fortunes of your club. I think people tend to forget that sometimes. I've been fortunate enough to come along at a time when this club has been as healthy as it's been all year and it doesn't hurt, too, that we're getting pretty good pitching."
Pitching has indeed been at the forefront of the Orioles' surge despite Tuesday night's 14-8 slugfest victory over the Indians. And it was the Orioles' young pitching that gave so many of their fans hope that this would be the season in which they could get back on the right side of .500. Yet Jeremy Guthrie (2.9) is the only Orioles starter to rank in the top 35 in the AL in SNLVAR, and the bullpen has been in flux all season as Gonzalez went down with a shoulder injury during the first week of the season. However, the pitching has definitely gotten better since Showalter has taken over, as the Orioles are giving up 4.00 runs per game compared to their season mark of 5.33, worst in the AL.
"It just seems like everybody is pitching with a lot more confidence," rookie left-hander Brian Matusz said. "Everyone is pitching well, and it's like nobody wants to break that chain, have a bad start and let the team down. It's just a different mindset."
Matusz, like the rest of the players, insists it stems from Showalter's arrival, even if he respectfully disagrees.
"I don't think I'm really doing anything different than most other managers," Showalter said. "Everyone is eventually going to be held accountable at this level. This is the major leagues. Everyone has to perform up to certain standards or they aren't going to be here. Maybe it's just that we have a pretty young group here and they are just starting to understand that."
Showalter has a well-deserved reputation as a turnaround artist, albeit one who gets a franchise to the brink of greatness before wearing out his welcome. He helped engineer the Yankees' turnaround in the 1990s and took over the expansion Diamondbacks and made them a contender in three years. In both case, those teams won the World Series in the season immediately after Showalter was fired, the Yankees in 1996 and the Diamondbacks in 2001. He also brought the Rangers back to respectability.
Showalter says he was happy in his role at ESPN. However, the desire to manage began creeping in again last year, and Showalter started actively pursuing jobs.
"I wanted to manage again, but I didn't want to take just any managing job," Showalter said. "It had to be the right one. There are so many reasons why this is a good fit for me. I have great respect for (president of baseball operations) Andy MacPhail and it's a franchise with great history playing in a great baseball town. I'm very happy to be part of this franchise."
And that happiness was never more clearly displayed than following Tuesday night's game when Showalter was being led away from his office for a live television interview following the victory. "What's the drill here?" Showalter asked a reporter, who suggested he should already understand that TV things.
"Buck's not a TV guy anymore, he's a manager," Showalter said with a broad grin.
The Twins took a one-game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central on Tuesday night as they won the opener of the teams' showdown series at U.S. Cellular Field, 12-6. White Sox general manager Ken Williams expects that paper-thin margin to remain at the top of the standings of a division that has been decided by a tiebreaker game in each of the last two seasons. The White Sox and Twins meet eight more times this season.
"It's more likely we're going to be within one or two games of each other by time that ends unless someone gets really hot," Williams said. "So it's every game. It's the Baltimore Orioles, it's the Tigers, it's Kansas City. It's every game. The heads-up ones count even more, but you're playing them enough times where they're going to beat us, we're going to beat them. I would like for it to be a complete sweep and make things easier, but they're a pretty good opponent."
Many White Sox players said they did not want Williams to make any major additions for fear it would disrupt the clubhouse chemistry. However, Williams said he is still willing to make moves if he is able to execute waiver traders this month, though it would have to be the right player.
"I knew that going into it," Williams said of the tight-knit clubhouse. "And that's why I felt unless it was an impact type guy and a guy who fit with them, we weren't going to do something just to do something. It had to be an impact-type guy. And I doubt very seriously if any one of them would have been complaining if that impact guy would have been walking through the clubhouse. They have to do what they have to do, and I have to do what I see as best as well. And sometimes they're in conflict with one another, and sometimes they're not. But generally, when I've had someone walk through that door that I know will be received well, it's been received well."
Regardless of whether the White Sox add help, first baseman Paul Konerko fully expects the AL Central race to go to the wire.
"You go into the season wanting to win the division, but you know there's going to be resistance from somewhere, whether it's Minnesota, Detroit, or Cleveland," Konerko said. "It's never easy. Even in 2005, we had such a huge lead and faced a ton of resistance at the end and barely won. So even in a year like that when the whole year was smooth, it got tough at the end."
Another rivalry, baseball's biggest, played out over the weekend at Yankee Stadium with the Yankees and Red Sox splitting a four-game series that ended Monday. The Red Sox remained six games behind the Yankees in the AL East. However, the Yankees are not writing the injury-riddled Red Sox off.
"If their pitching staff is healthy, that's all that matters," first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "I don't care how many injuries they've had or have right now, that's a good team. Pitching is everything in this game. Their starting five is as good as anyone's in baseball, and they have arguably the best eighth- and ninth-inning guys, as well. That combination is tough."
Pirates ownership wouldn't have allowed Russell to fire two staff members if his own job status was questionable. Thus, it seems certain Russell will return in 2011 to fulfill the final year of his contract despite the Pirates having the worst record in the National League at 39-73.
"It was a very gut-wrenching decision," Russell said. "There are some issues I've been working through for quite some time now that could not be resolved in a way I felt would be for the betterment of this organization. I respect both men greatly. I lost two friends. That's tough to deal with. But my main focus is this team, this organization, and I felt moving forward that this was the time to do this. With two months left in the season, I wanted to accomplish something this year moving into next year."
Meanwhile, after having gone through multiple rebuilding efforts since their last winning season in 1992, the Pirates believe the latest one is beginning to take hold. They are excited about a lineup that includes four players 24 or younger in second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata, and center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
"We really like what we have there, and we think it might be special," Russell said. "The best part, I think, is that these players are young, and they're only going to get better right here in Pittsburgh, where people can see them for years to come."
Brandon Morrow's one-hit, 17-strikeout performance in a shutout of the Rays on Sunday came a day after Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia became the first major-leaguer ever to have four hits and two home runs in his major-league debut.
Those were two great moments in what has been a surprising season for the Blue Jays. Though they are 10 games behind the Yankees in the AL East and 9 ½ games behind the wild-card leading Rays, the Blue Jays have a 59-53 record during a season in which they were universally picked to finish last in the division.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos is in the running for Executive of the Year in his first season on the job after being promoted from assistant GM last October. And there is interest in Canada again about the Blue Jays, who have not been to the postseason since winning the second of back-to-back World Series titles in 1993.
"What's exciting from my standpoint is I'm really starting to see and feel a buzz in the city," Anthopoulos said. "I think everybody's getting really excited about the fact that it's an exciting core of young players playing hard. It's been an exciting year in terms of the brand of baseball, a lot of good games. I think people are really starting to buy into what we're trying to do as an organization."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine is expected to be at the top of Mariners' list of manager candidates. Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik plans to spend the rest of the season vetting candidates then begin interviews in early October. … The Angels are considering releasing long-time set-up man Scot Shields. … The White Sox plan to use Mark Teahen as a super-utility player rather than as an everyday third baseman when he returns from the disabled list as he will also see spot duty at first base and the outfield corners. … The Reds are considering shifting rookie Mike Leake from the rotation to the bullpen to keep his innings count down. … While John Axford and Trevor Hoffman are now co-closers, look for that arrangement to last just until Hoffman gets the three saves needed for 600 in his career. … Athletics infielder Eric Chavez, who has been out since May with two bulging discs in his neck, is leaning toward retiring at the of the season.
Scouts' takes on various major-league players:
Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran: "He's just not the player he used to be because of his knee. He's become extremely tentative in the outfield, and his power is negligible because he doesn't have a strong base under him without healthy legs. Maybe having the offseason to rest will help, but he is definitely a player in decline."
Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera: "He's taken a step backward in all phases of the game this year. He made a really big jump from Low-A ball to the major leagues last year, and I think a year of Triple-A would do him good."
Twins left-hander Brian Duensing: "He isn't the most talented pitcher in the league, but the Twins are better for having him in their rotation. He's a battler, and he finds a way to keep you in the game almost every time out."
Tigers right-hander Armando Galarraga: "The near-perfect game showed how good he can be. The slider can be unhittable, and the sinker can also be a good pitch. Yet he's so inconsistent. You just don't know what you're going to get every time he takes the mound."
Braves third baseman Chipper Jones: "He's swinging the bat better from the left side than he has all year. That's a good sign because it's not his natural side. He seems to finally be getting into a groove for the first time all season."
Rockies closer Huston Street: "He really hasn't been sharp all year because he got such a late start to the season. I wouldn't trust him in a pennant race with the way he's pitching. He's leaving too many pitches up in the hitters' happy zones."
Rangers catcher Taylor Teagarden: "Like a lot of people, I've kind of pigeonholed him as a backup but I'm starting to change my mind. He's really become very good defensively and I think he's going to hit enough to be a starter."
Three series to watch with probable pitchers and all times Eastern:
Dodgers (59-54) at Braves (65-48), Friday-Monday August 13-16
Hiroki Kuroda vs. Tim Hudson, 7:35 p.m.; Ted Lilly vs. Derek Lowe, 7:10 p.m.; Vicente Padilla vs. Jair Jurrjens, 1:35 p.m.; Chad Billingsley vs. Tommy Hanson, 7:10 p.m.