Old-school Buck teaches new tricks to Orioles

NEW YORK — The door is open to Buck Showalter’s office, an invitation to anyone who wants to talk about baseball on a rainy day. Two rules apply, though: no discussion of the widely publicized Men’s Journal article that criticized both Derek Jeter and the Red Sox — “We’ve moved on,” Buck said earlier — and don’t even think of asking about the Orioles’ new winning culture or clubhouse chemistry.

Those are empty, abstract concepts to an old-school manager like Showalter who believes the O’s are flourishing not because of talk-therapy, but because of good pitching and timely hitting. Like we said, it’s as emotionally low-tech as its gets in 2011, but that’s precisely how Showalter has reshaped this perennially sorry franchise.

Incredible, isn’t it, that Orioles are in first place today, hanging on to a one-game lead over the Yankees after Tuesday night’s rainout. Baltimore has one of the American League’s youngest rotations, and because of injuries Showalter says, “We’re using our seventh or eighth (choices).” Yet the O’s have allowed the fewest runs in the East.

None of this would make sense except that Showalter is the man behind the revolution. What’s his secret? Buck certainly hasn’t coddled the Orioles, but his players say he hasn’t overplayed his hand as one of the game’s smartest managers. Buck is neither Oprah nor Patton, just a baseball lifer who asks for two things: hard work and punctuality.

“The one thing you sense about Buck is that he’s always prepared and so is his staff. That trickles down,” said ace Jeremy Guthrie. “He doesn’t do any

thing off the top of his head; everything has a reason, which gives us a lot of confidence.”

Showalter is hardly the kind to gloat about the Orioles’ early sprint, of course. Studying the Yankees’ lineup card on his desk, he shakes his head and asks ruefully, “You think they ever get bored?”

It’s no revelation to Showalter that the Orioles’ run is being partly fueled by the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ early pitching problems. Still, there’s no guarantee either one of the superpowers will flatten the East’s working class, either, at least not the way experts were predicting in spring training.

As long as Phil Hughes struggles to reach 90 mph on the radar gun and Ivan Nova fails to smother opposing lineups the second time through, the Bombers will struggle to put together long winning streaks. Even relying on their ace, CC Sabathia, is no guarantee of success: The Yankees have scored just two runs for the lefthander in his last 12 innings, losing both of his starts.

The Sox are even more vulnerable. On Monday, Daisuke Matsuzaka was booed off the mound at Fenway after allowing the Rays seven runs in two innings in a 16-5 rout. The Japanese right-hander once was considered as magical as a unicorn he even came to America with an unheard-of pitch, a gyro-ball. Today, however, Matsuzaka is nothing more than ordinary, with a 1.55 WHIP since 2009. Even the gyro-ball was unmasked as a fraud, nothing more than a backup slider.

The same sense of disappointment hangs over John Lackey (15.58 ERA, 2.42 WHIP) and Clay Buchholz, who’s allowed five home runs in 7$ innings this season. While their loyalists insist the Sox are too talented to self-destruct, history suggests they may have done just that by losing their first six games.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team that started 0-4 has ever won a world championship, and only one (the 1985 Cardinals) ever won a pennant. Even getting to the postseason will be a challenge for the Sox; since 1995, only two of 128 teams advanced beyond the regular season after four straight losses after opening day (1999 Diamondbacks and 1995 Reds).

Unlikely as it’s been, the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ sluggish starts have made it possible for the Orioles and Jays to prosper. Of course, things can change quickly in April, but in the meantime, Showalter is teaching the Orioles all the old-school lessons about hard work, even if he refuses to call it chemistry or culture.

“It’s about having the mentality of what’s not good enough,” Buck said. “We talk about it all the time about that: What are you willing to do? What are you willing to sweat that someone else may not be, to make (baseball) relevant again in Baltimore?”

The manager isn’t just asking the questions, he knows who understands and who doesn’t. No manager is as aware of his players as Showalter it’s been both his gift and his curse in jobs with the Yankees, Rangers and Diamondbacks. Showalter pays attention to how many times a struggling pitcher looks into his dugout during an opponent’s rally (it means he’s lost his confidence) and how many players jump off the dugout bench when a long fly ball goes screaming towards the foul pole (the ones who remain seated are too selfish to care).

Buck has the same gauge off the field, as well.

“You walk in the clubhouse and you know, we’ve got it going on,” he said. “You can (also) feel when something’s not right.”

For now, the Orioles feel in sync, even without lefty Brian Matusz and shortstop J.J. Hardy and Guthrie slowly recovering from pneumonia. Showalter would have alibis for a slow start, if he’d needed them, although like any old-school disciple, indulging the easy way out is forbidden.

“There isn’t a team out there that has all its bullets for the whole season,” Showalter says. It’s called perseverance, although Buck would prefer less PC language. Let’s just say his Orioles are sucking it up.

Bob Klapisch/The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)