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ORIOLES SHOW SIGNS OF LIFE AS MAZZILLI CLINGS TO HIS JOB

It's easy to point out some of this season's big disappointments. The Astros top the list, with the Blue Jays, Mariners and Royals not far behind. But the Orioles shouldn't escape scrutiny, either. First-year manager Lee Mazzilli was supposed to use his years under Joe Torre to re-establish the Oriole Way and join the Yankees and Red Sox at the top of the AL East.

It hasn't happened. The O's are simply trying to stay afloat ahead of the Blue Jays and not drop into the cellar. Things were OK for two months as Baltimore entered June at 24-23 and just five games out of first place.

Then the Birds went south. While the Devil Rays flourished, the Orioles had the majors' worst record in June (8-19) and fell to 16 1/2 games off the pace. And almost everything has gone wrong.

Alleged ace Sidney Ponson is 4-12. Star second baseman Melvin Mora is having another sensational year (batting .347) and was the AL Player of the Month for May but missed 20 games in June due to foot and hamstring troubles. That stuck the offense in neutral and a lack of clutch hitting was a major problem. Then there's the bullpen, which has blown nine of its last 18 save opportunities. And injuries: David Segui and Marty Cordova combine to make $10.5 million this season and injuries have limited them to 13 games.

Owner Peter Angelos opened his pocketbook in the offseason and has been rewarded by free-agent signee Miguel Tejada (.312-18-87), who entered the weekend tied with Boston's David Ortiz for the AL lead in RBIs. Catcher Javy Lopez (.311-12-45) has been a disappointment from the power standpoint after belting 43 home runs last year with Atlanta but has still been consistent at the plate all season. The one revelation of the season has been rookie pitcher Daniel Cabrera, who is 8-3.

The Orioles went 6-3 on a road trip that wrapped up last week in Fenway Park, and Mazzilli said it's the best he's felt about his club in a while. Baltimore was particularly strong on defense in the series against the Red Sox, with Mora and Tejada making several spectacular plays.

"You'd think that defense goes hand in hand with everything and can be a spark," Mazzilli said. "Miguel (Tejada) has probably played the best shortstop he's played all year recently. He's played so well, made some spectacular plays of late. When your offense gets going, jumps out with a few runs like we have in some of these games, it makes it easier."

So far at least, it's one of the few easy stretches in Mazzilli's rookie year. Those big payrolls in Boston and New York are tough to beat.

"We've had adversity, but we have to keep battling," Mazzilli said. "It's what we do. Our guys don't quit."

Walk off to the DL

Here's your hands-down winner for injury of the season: First baseman Tagg Bozied, a top prospect for San Diego's Triple-A affiliate in Portland, Ore., suffered a ruptured patella tendon in his left knee Monday night -- preparing to do a two-footed stomp on home plate while coming down the third-base line after his walk-off grand slam produced an 8-5 win over Tacoma. Bozied, 25, was batting .315 with 16 homers and 58 RBIs for Portland and is now looking at 6-8 months of rehab.

Bozied passed out in agony and crumpled atop the plate as his shocked teammates watched. They quickly backed off to allow trainers to stabilize Bozied and cart him off the field.

"I thought, 'Wow, I've hit a walkoff grand slam. This is something really cool,' " Bozied told the Portland Oregonian on Wednesday. "Everybody was waiting for me at home plate, I wanted to make sure I enjoyed it. So halfway between third and home, I made up my mind I was going to jump right into them. . . . It went from the greatest moment of my career to the low -- in a matter of seconds."

"It's a horrible way to end a great season for him," Padres General Manager Kevin Towers said. "He was putting up some impressive numbers and certainly had caught our eye. . . . That's a heartbreaker."

Runner-up on the injury front is Yankees reliever Sam Marsonek, who was having a boffo season at Triple-A Columbus (17 saves) and threw 1 1/3 innings in his big league debut July 11 at Tampa. So he celebrated his first half by going fishing in Florida over the All-Star break. Big mistake. Marsonek strained his right knee slipping on a Tampa dock and is on the disabled list.

Around the horn

Boston fans have long memories and certainly carry a grudge. Ex-Bison Karim Garcia, reacquired last week by Baltimore, got bombarded with boos every time he hit during the Orioles' series in Fenway Park. Garcia, of course, is notorious for his bullpen dustup with a Fenway groundskeeper while playing for the Yankees during last year's ALCS.

Hideki Matsui's numbers with the bases loaded last season: 10 for 23. In 2004: 2 for 17. And all that Godzilla talk when Matsui came from Japan conveniently left out the part of what a dreadful outfielder he is.

Twelve straight division titles already stands as a feat that might never be matched. But if Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone lead the cost-cutting Braves to an NL East title this year over the big-money/new-ballpark Phillies and defending World Series champions Marlins, they will cement their legacy as perhaps the greatest manager/pitching coach duo in history. Sure, Torre and Mel Stottlemyre have more rings, but anybody would have won some with George Steinbrenner's budget.

In his television days, Rangers manager Buck Showalter once did a feature on ESPN about signs. Texas opponents think Showalter is pretty good at stealing them. There's plenty of murmuring around the American League about the office complex in center field at Ameriquest Field housing Rangers spies. Texas entered the weekend 30-14 at home and just 24-25 on the road. The team batting average is .301 at home, .257 road. Runs scored: 6.5 per game at home, 4.6 road. Hmmmm.

A big reason the Devil Rays got hot in June was because of their 15-3 record in interleague play that included an 8-1 mark at National League parks. In this case, not having a designated hitter helped an American League team. Now the Rays are struggling again, in part because their DHs entered the weekend batting an AL-worst .198.

Pittsburgh's PNC Park earned the 2006 All-Star Game over San Francisco's gleaming SBC Park even though Pittsburgh hosted the game just 12 years ago (in Three Rivers Stadium). The reason? Commissioner Bud Selig felt the team's sagging attendance needed a boost. It's expected the Pirates' season-ticket base, which has slipped to just 8,500 in PNC's fourth season, will rebound dramatically next season as corporations get back in the mix so they can lock up seats for the '06 events.

In addition, Selig said last week the rash of new parks in the National League (San Francisco, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and San Diego) make it likely the AL-NL alternate-site format will be eliminated and the most worthy sites will be chosen for games from 2007-2009 when they're announced before the end of the season.
e-mail:
mharrington@buffnews.com

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