- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2001

KANSAS CITY, Mo. Mike Hargrove sat in the Baltimore Orioles' dugout at Kauffman Stadium yesterday afternoon and did his best to sound upbeat about his ballclub's season, which has seemingly fallen apart over the last month.

"I like our club. I like it a lot," Hargrove said shortly before the Orioles met the Kansas City Royals for the first time this year. The game ended too late for this edition. "I like the character of the club. I like the talent we have. I like the fact that we go out and are competitive with people. I like the fact that we didn't trade Jeff Conine and players of that ilk, just to be doing something. Even though we're going through a tough time, there are a lot of things happening right now that I think are very positive."

On the surface, it's hard to find much worth gloating about with this team. Predicted by many this spring to be among the worst clubs in baseball, the Orioles shocked most everyone by playing to a respectable 39-42 record on July 1.

Since that date, they've made those preseason prognostications look gracious. Losers of 25 of its last 31 games entering last night's contest, Baltimore indeed is playing like one of the worst teams in baseball. The Orioles' 45-67 record (a .402 winning percentage) tops only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (37-74), Pittsburgh Pirates (43-67) and Royals (44-67), and their once-safe cushion over the woeful Devil Rays for last place in the AL East is down to 7* games.

Hargrove's frustration reached a boiling point Saturday afternoon following a 2-1 loss at Toronto, after which the manager held an animated closed-door meeting. He wasn't upset with his players' effort in fact, he thinks some might be trying too hard. He was, however, upset that some players were beginning to get down on themselves and were worrying about things out of their control.

Since that point, Hargrove likes what he has seen. The Orioles battled back from four runs down to put the tying run on third base Sunday afternoon in a 5-4 loss to the Blue Jays.

"If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said we aren't playing anything like we were before the break," Hargrove said. "But probably in the last week I've seen signs of us regrouping and getting it back."

And with 31 of their last 46 games coming against AL East rivals (28 against contending teams), Hargrove sees plenty of motivation for his team in the season's final two months.

"The carrot is the fact that we are and can be competitive, and we can make life miserable for people going down the stretch," he said. "That's what we did last year. And the carrot also is establishing yourself as a major league player to the point that when people do talk trades, you're name is mentioned as a primary player. Not that you want to be traded, but you want your name mentioned. That means you're doing something to grab someone's attention."

Far out of the pennant chase for some time now, the Orioles will spend the next eight weeks evaluating their young talent. Players like shortstop Brian Roberts, catcher Fernando Lunar, starter Calvin Maduro, relievers Willis Roberts and Kris Foster and yet-to-be-named September call-ups will get opportunities to state their case.

The focus is not necessarily on the rest of this season but beyond.

"We're building for the future, whether it's next year, the year after that or the year after that," Hargrove said. "At some point in time, we want to be good. And to do that, you've got to pay your dues, go through what you're going to go through, stay competitive and learn the lessons, whether the easy way or the hard way. And I think we've been successful in doing that."

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