- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2001

BALTIMORE The Baltimore Orioles reached the midpoint of their 2001 season with a 39-42 record, three games better than they were at this juncture a year ago.

Similar records, completely different outlooks.

"Last year at this time, we were an old ballclub that was essentially going nowhere," manager Mike Hargrove said of the 2000 version of the Orioles, who spent the month of July unloading veteran players during a roster purge. "The only thing we had to look forward to at this time last year was the fact that we were a day older."

What does Baltimore have to look forward to in the second half of this season, which kicks off tonight against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards? Plenty.

The Orioles boast one of the American League's best young pitching staffs, a handful of budding stars and a potential steal of a replacement for Cal Ripken at third base. Plus, they are looking forward to getting key injured players like Mike Bordick, Pat Hentgen, Chris Richard and Alan Mills back on their active roster within weeks.

"With the transition starting to take place, the ceiling is high with this club," Hargrove said. "I don't think we should get carried away, but what we've been able to accomplish so far points to good things ahead for this ballclub in the next year, two years, three years. And it lets us know, at least for now, that the steps we are taking are in the right direction."

The keys to Baltimore's past and future success:

1. The young starters The Orioles were projected by many as one of the worst teams in baseball this spring, in large part because of the uninspiring starting rotation they seemed ready to trot out. But free agent signee Hentgen proved to be a worthy staff leader before going down with an elbow injury in May. Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson appear to have turned the corner from mediocre major league arms to reliable young right-handers. And a pair of previously unheralded rookies, Willis Roberts and Josh Towers, burst onto the scene to combine for a 12-9 record, in spite of Roberts' recent inconsistencies. Even Jose Mercedes, who opened the year a dismal 0-6, has rebounded to win his last three starts and show signs of the pitcher who led the league in second-half wins last season.

With Hentgen due to come off the disabled list shortly after the All-Star break, the Orioles figure to have built a solid pitching rotation for the rest of this season and beyond.

2. Improved offense Owners of the worst team batting average in baseball for much of the first two months of the season, the Orioles slowly have righted themselves behind the bats of Jeff Conine (.326 average), David Segui (.302), Melvin Mora (.292) and Jerry Hairston (.274). There's still a relative lack of power, along with disappointing production from several key roster members Brady Anderson (.206), Cal Ripken (.227), Brook Fordyce (.206) and newcomer Tony Batista (.204) but Baltimore no longer fields the majors' worst-hitting team.

3. An ever-changing bullpen It's become a revolving door of arms, but the Orioles' pen has found a way to hold itself together, thanks in no small part to consistently workmanlike efforts from veterans Mike Trombley and Buddy Groom. After rookie Ryan Kohlmeier faltered as a closer, Hargrove turned to the righty-lefty combo of Trombley and Groom, who have combined to post 11 saves. Each possesses an ERA under 3.50.

Still, Hargrove has been increasingly more hesitant to go to anyone else in a late-inning, pressure situation, with B.J. Ryan suffering from elbow troubles and a bevy of young hurlers shuttling in and out of Class AAA Rochester over the last month. Someone else probably has to step to the forefront and become a go-to guy other than Trombley and Groom.

4. The defining of players' roles Hargrove continues to designate 2001 as a transition year for the Orioles, which has led to several difficult personnel and playing-time decisions. Veteran outfielder Delino DeShields' prolonged slump landed him first on the bench and then on the waiver wire, with the Orioles designating last season's team MVP for assignment last week. Ripken's playing time was diminished, and it will continue to be in the final three months of his career, with Batista slowly taking over as the everyday third baseman. The experiment of Chuck McElroy as a starting pitcher went haywire after a month, with the veteran left-hander returning to the bullpen to give younger guys like Towers a chance to start.

Questions that loom ahead for Hargrove include what to do with Anderson should his batting average continue to hover around the Mendoza line and what to do with the enigmatic Roberts, who figures to lose his rotation spot once Hentgen is healthy. Don't be surprised if the rookie right-hander gets a shot to close a few games in the near future.

5. A realistic approach No matter what they have shown on the field through their first 81 games, the Orioles do not claim to be contenders yet. They know they realistically are still a year or two away from competing for a division title, which has helped foster the relaxed atmosphere inside their Camden Yards clubhouse. This remains a young team with much to improve on during the next 81 games, a three-month stretch that will both signal the end of the Ripken era and the beginning of things to come.

"This is still a work in progress, it really is," Hargrove said. "We're nowhere near where we want to be. And I sincerely think we're nowhere near where we will be."

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