BALTIMORE — far, the Baltimore Orioles' season has been a storybook saga, a "Worst To First" rise that has defied description and forced all the baseball experts to choke on their predictions.
As the Orioles near their midpoint of the season, they are the talk of the game.
But, until recently, when attrition began to gnaw at the pitching staff, the Orioles also have defied the one thing that can ravage any contender: injuries to crucial personnel.
"Certainly, other clubs have been hit harder than us," said General Manager Roland Hemond. "We're grateful that things have gone pretty well."
Not that key personnel hasn't been missing. Bill Ripken, the starting second baseman, and Steve Finley, one of the shuttling outfielders, were disabled early in the season.
Catcher Bob Melvin was missing for 15 days--the period in which Mickey Tettleton got hot and soared into national prominence--and three pitchers, Oswald Peraza, Mark Bowden and John Habyan, did not even start the season.
But those losses occurred early--before the division took form--and the Orioles generally have avoided the siege that has hit hard at their American League East opposition, particularly the Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
None of the big guns--Cal Ripken Jr., Tettleton or Phil Bradley--has been felled.
"Their loss would be a tremendous blow to the club," said Manager Frank Robinson. "I don't know if we could play well without them. I don't even want to think about it."
Look around elsewhere and key cogs have been and are missing. Marty Barrett, Ellis Burks and Oil Can Boyd at Boston. Dave Winfield, John Candelaria and Roberto Kelly at New York. Paul Molitor, Ted Higuera, Juan Nieves and Dale Sveum at Milwaukee. Jack Morris, Jeff Robinson, Matt Nokes, Alan Trammell and Gary Pettis at Detroit.
Frank Robinson has said often this year that, with few exceptions, the talent level of the Orioles roster is relatively even down the line. That means one player can replace another without a big dropoff.
"But where it weakens you is when you don't have the other player," he said. "We're not a deep ballclub. When healthy, we're a good team. But we can't afford a lot of injuries. Everything else, you can work around or work with, but not injuries."
According to Orioles trainer Richie Bancells, overall the injury recovery pace "is a little ahead of last year and I think our youth has a lot to do with it. Young players just recover faster."
"They're less inclined to get the muscle pulls than older guys," said Robinson.
An argument can also be made for the strength and conditioning program this year under the supervision of Al Johnson, but Robinson is reserving judgment until more data is in.
"We're into new territory there," he said. "I don't know yet what that has meant."
Hemond said: "I think it has been a positive, just in a prevention sense and for stamina building. Major league baseball is grueling. If you're not in top condition, you can't recover as well."
What has the manager concerned most is the recent spate of injuries to his pitchers, "an area where we can least afford it. You lose a starter and it affects your bullpen, a bullpen guy and it affects your starters. Luckily, Mark Williamson made a remarkable recovery."
Hemond said the "hunger" of the youth and the evenness of the talent help the Orioles withstand losses, even those for a few days, better than clubs with an older, more set lineup.
"There might not be the disparity in talent other clubs have," he said, "and we've had players like (pitcher Mickey) Weston and some others come in and capitalize on their opportunity.
"With many of them in the early stages of their careers, they go for it."
As any manager would, Robinson does not consider the Orioles fortunate, citing the nagging type of ailments (like center fielder Brady Anderson's ingrown toenail that forced him to miss several games) as statistics that do not appear on the disabled list.
And he certainly isn't worrying about what has happened to the rest of the American League East. Nor is Hemond.
"Let's not forget that early part when we had our problems," said Hemond. "And we cross our fingers because we can't predict day to day what might happen.
"But you can't feel sorry for yourself if they do. I know the opposition never sends you any sympathy cards."