Chugging frightfully toward a possible 100-loss season, the Baltimore Orioles somehow showed up on national television Saturday in those throw-back Negro League uniforms, topping the playoff-contending Texas Rangers 5-4 on Fox's Game of the Week.
Major League Baseball fans know diamond-ball in the Baltimore-Washington market is bad this year and has been that way for too many seasons to want to count. With 26 games to go in the 2009 season, the Orioles, and the region's other MLB franchise, are sitting on 81 and 90 losses, respectively.
But for the Orioles on Saturday on Fox, baby-face rookie lefty Brian Matusz gave fans a glimpse of what could be -- though not forgetting a wretched streak of 12 consecutive losing seasons. Competing in the brutal American League East against the always big-payroll Yankees and Red Sox, along with the steady play of the Tampa Bay Rays over the past couple of seasons, the 22-year-old Matusz outpitched Rangers' veteran Kevin Millwood for seven innings to offer a peek into what could be an improving prognosis for the Birds of Baltimore.
Despite the team bottoming out in the won-loss department again since the All-Star break (15-33 so far), fans here at least can be comforted that maybe, just maybe, the Orioles are moving in the right direction to back up that their last World Series won in 1983 with Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray as the anchors.
Matusz, the fourth overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft, and fellow rookies, righties Chris Tillman, 21, Brad Bergesen, 23, David Hernandez, 23, and Jason Berken, 25, are taking some hard knocks in the Orioles rotation while upping expectations for the future.
Add to them the 2009 fifth overall pick in 19-year-old right-hander Matt Hobgood, switch hitting catcher Matt Wieters, 23, the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, outfielders Adam Jones, 24, and Nick Markakis, 25, along with more deep talent Orioles President Andy MacPhail is nurturing on the farm, and there is reason for Baltimore to believe again.
With yesterday's outing, Matusz ran his season's record to 4-2 with a 5.26 ERA, winning three of his last four starts. Matusz had gone 7-0 with a 1.55 ERA in eight starts for the Orioles' Bowie, MD Double-A affiliate before being called up. The kid simply can pitch and is unflappable as he adjusts to big-league hitters, is how they describe him so far.
Tillman, acquired in the February 2008 deal with Jones that sent lefty Erik Bedard to Seattle, is 1-3 ERA with a 4.66 ERA; Hernandez sits at 4-6 and a 4.54 ERA; Berken, who has pitched the second most innings on the club is 4-11, 6.07; and, before being injured, Bergesen was the team's top pitcher at 7-5 with a 3.43 ERA in 19 starts.
You look at the numbers and think it's another of baseball's many "hope springs eternal" stories. Maybe so. But Baltimore has some history on its side in developing top-flight big league pitchers. These names ring a bell? Palmer, McGregor, Musina, McNally.
When he came up to the big leagues in 1965 as a 20-year-old rookie, Hall of Famer Jim Palmer finished the year 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA. The very next year -- the season the Orioles stunned the Los Angeles Dodgers with Koufax and Drysdale in a four-game World Series sweep -- Palmer raised his win total to 15. Lefty Scotty McGregor won three games for the Orioles during the 1976 and 1977 seasons, then pushed that to 15 games at age 24 in 1978. Similar with Musina, who went 4-5 in his opening Oriole campaign at age 22 in 1991, then skyrocketed to 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA the next season.
More history: Going back to 1970, the Orioles put up three 20-game winners (Dave McNally, 24-9, Mike Cuellar, 24-8, and Palmer, 20-10) and then four (adding Pat Dobson) in 1971.
Surely, this is a day and age in baseball where fewer starting pitchers win 20 games because of the expanded roles of relief specialists. But the Orioles could be setting themselves up nicely for the future -- a still proud franchise with three world titles since 1966 (Cubs, Indians have none). A Murray-like bat in the cleanup spot will help, as will a veteran starter to lead the young pitchers on the field.
Spring training 2010 won't come soon enough.
Photo: Orioles rookie Brian Matusz