Baltimore’s record, its position in the AL East standings and the staff ERA were deemed virtually irrelevant by the man in charge of turning around a franchise mired in a run of 10 straight losing seasons. At this point in the rebuilding process, progress is judged by the behavior in the clubhouse and chatter in the dugout.
“The thing we were really trying to get was some energy, effort, enthusiasm for the game. Just play the game as well as we can,” MacPhail said. “I certainly have been satisfied at the midway point as it relates to that.”
MacPhail isn’t complaining about the results, either. After a 10-4 win over Texas on July 4, Baltimore was three games over .500, in third place and ahead of the New York Yankees. The Orioles then staggered into the break with seven losses in eight games, a run that dropped them to 45-48 and into last place in the division.
Still, they have thus far exceeded all expectations.
“In the past, people would think the Orioles were just a walkover team. It’s not like that this year,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “I’ll put our team against any team right this second without a second thought.”
The credit goes to MacPhail and Dave Trembley, who has displayed uncompromising leadership in his first full season as a big league manager. The 56-year-old Trembley called upon his 20 seasons of experience as a minor league manager to squeeze positive results from a squad that placed only one player - closer George Sherrill - on the AL All-Star team.
“We have a consistent baseball team with a staff that is behind us,” first baseman Kevin Millar said. “I think that’s the difference.”
Trembley told the players in spring training to ignore those who predicted the Orioles would quickly sink into last place and end up losing 100 games. The club promptly banded together, intent upon squashing its critics like batting-practice fastballs.
“We knew we had a good team in spring training. You guys didn’t,” said designated hitter Aubrey Huff, who leads the Orioles with 18 homers and 59 RBI and ranks third with a .284 batting average. “Where we are says a lot about our character, because no one expected it at the start.”
Even MacPhail is surprised at the returns he’s gotten from the offseason trades of shortstop Miguel Tejada and pitcher Erik Bedard. The five players the Orioles got from Houston for Tejada include starting left fielder Luke Scott (.254, 14 homers) and relievers Dennis Sarfate (4-1, 3.40 ERA) and Matt Albers (3-3, 3.49 ERA). The quintet obtained from Seattle for pitcher Erik Bedard includes Jones, who’s batting .281 and playing stellar defense, and Sherrill, who has 28 saves.
“We gave up two high-quality major leagues with the idea that we’d get better in the future. They’ve probably had more impact in the immediate future than we anticipated,” MacPhail said. “Clearly, we’re happy.”
Albers is lost for at least two months with a shoulder injury, but Sarfate appears poised to take over his role as a seventh-inning bridge to Jim Johnson (2-3, 2.03 ERA) and Sherrill. That’s important, because the Orioles will need to get more out of their starting rotation if they expect to build on a solid first half.
The team’s success in 2008, however, could well be determined during the 11-game homestand that begins Thursday and includes Detroit, Toronto and the Los Angeles Angels. If Baltimore fares well, then perhaps MacPhail won’t be as willing to deal Huff, Brian Roberts, Millar, Jay Payton, Sherrill or Chad Bradford before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
“Those decisions pretty much become self-evident when you get there. We evaluate them all on an individual basis, then do what we think makes sense for us,” MacPhail said. “You don’t know what opportunities you might have.”