Despite improved talent, O’s still making same old mistakes

June 25, 2009 | Luke Jones

When looking from afar, it seems nothing has changed this year from the last 11 seasons of baseball.  Stuck in last place with a 32-39 record, the Orioles appear destined to complete their 12th-straight losing season of baseball.

But despite the lack of improvement in the win-loss department, anyone paying close attention this season can see the improved talent level at several key positions.

The outfield of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Nolan Reimold appears set for the future, and Matt Wieters—you may have heard of him by now—may be the new face of the franchise if numerous scouting reports from all around baseball are legitimate.

And, of course, there’s the pitching.  We’ve already seen promise from Brad Bergesen and David Hernandez, and a plethora of arms waits at Triple-A Norfolk.

While the talent level is vastly improved from the teams of the past decade composed entirely of over-the-hill veterans and undeserving young players, a major problem still plagues the Orioles despite the promises made by manager Dave Trembley two seasons ago.

Stressing the importance of playing the game the right way, we heard reports of the team taking infield practice before games and focusing on fundamentals in spring training.

So where are the fruits of their labor?

Much like the last 11 seasons, the Orioles continue to display poor fundamentals, lack instincts, and make mental mistakes—areas that are completely inexcusable at the big league level.  Slumps and lack of execution are unavoidable parts of the game, but being fundamentally sound is an absolute prerequisite for winning baseball.

The last two losses to the Florida Marlins are a microcosm of what continues to plague this ball club.  In case you missed it, here’s a brief summary of the lackadaisical play and mental mistakes that were made:

-  In the top of the 11th of Tuesday night’s game, Ty Wigginton singles with a man on first and one out.  With the pitcher’s spot on deck and no pinch hitters available, Wigginton inexplicably gets thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double.  Instead of first and third with one out, the Orioles send Rich Hill to the plate—with Brian Roberts waiting on deck—with two outs.  The Orioles do not score, and they lose in the bottom of the 12th inning despite a remarkable comeback in the ninth.

-  On Wednesday, in the top of the first, the Orioles have runners on first and second with none out.  Felix Pie gets a poor jump on the backend of a double steal and gets thrown out at second base.  Pie’s jump was so poor that he actually stopped halfway between first and second.  Instead of simply staying put and leaving the club with a first and third and no out situation with Markakis and Aubrey Huff coming up, it turns into a runner on third with one out.  The Orioles do not score.

-  Later, in the bottom of the fourth, the Marlins’ Dan Uggla scores from first on a double by Cody Ross into the left-field corner.  Left fielder Luke Scott seemingly takes forever—even by his standards—getting to the ball and digging it out of the corner, allowing Uggla—who doesn’t run particularly well—to score despite a good relay.

-  And finally, in the bottom of the seventh, Florida’s Emilio Bonifacio attempts to steal second on a pitch outside and in the dirt.  Instead of simply holding the ball, Wieters makes an ill-advised throw that sails into center field.   Topping it off, Pie—making the embarrassing mistake of a little leaguer—holds onto the ball in center and then lobs a throw into Brian Roberts, allowing Bonifacio to score, putting the Marlins ahead, 4-2.

While the mistakes of the last two nights haven’t occurred quite as frequently over the entire season, the same mental mistakes have been made far too many times.

The baserunning has been most problematic—too many runners caught stealing or not knowing the situation when trying to take an extra base on a hit.

Entering Wednesday night’s game, the Orioles ranked last in the American League in stolen base percentage with only 64 percent of attempts being successful.  The club has also had 27 runners thrown out on the bases (not including pick offs, caught stealing, or force plays), fourth-highest in the American League.

Veteran and longest-tenured Oriole Melvin Mora has been one of the poorest base runners—as he has been for much of his otherwise good career in Baltimore.  The third baseman has been thrown out on the bases five times this season.

Where is the accountability with the same mental mistakes being made repeatedly?  Why do the veterans get a free pass?  Sure, these are grown men playing in the big leagues, but where does Trembley and the coaching staff fit into the equation?

For all of the talk we’ve heard over the last two years about playing the game the right way and stressing fundamentals, it sure does not reflect in the play on the field.

Whether it takes a screaming session in the clubhouse, sending a player like Pie packing, or simply spending more time on infield and baserunning drills, the message needs to be sent that the lackadaisical play will not be tolerated.  With so many talented young players in the fold, they need to be taught to play the game the right way.

Physical tools may take individual players a long way, but strong fundamentals and baseball instincts are an absolute necessity for building a winning franchise.

The message needs to be sent that anything less will be unacceptable.

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