Hot start or hot seat for Mazzilli

Our least favorite question – and often the least fair – as we enter a baseball season is the gratuitous "Who will be the first manager to be fired?"

Baseball's unpredictability, one of its greatest features, makes such questions so difficult to answer, but here goes: April will be very important for several teams and managers, but mostly, Lee Mazzilli of the Orioles.

The Orioles have had seven consecutive losing seasons, more than double the longest such streak since the team moved to Baltimore in 1954. This is a franchise with a rich history; its eternal snapshot is that of manager Earl Weaver on the team bus in late '70s, shaking his head after a loss and saying "damn it's hard to stay 50 games over .500."

Last year, Mazzilli's first as a major-league manager, was supposed to be different. The Orioles had spent an enormous amount of money the previous winter to upgrade the club, including signing free agents Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez. But they brought only slight improvement: 78 wins.

In the midst of a 12-game losing streak last August, there were rumors that Mazzilli might not make it through the season, or wouldn't be back for 2005. But the Orioles won 21 of their last 34 games, perhaps saving Mazzilli's job. It probably should have never been in doubt in the first place. Mazzilli was hired without a coaching staff of his own, which is often essential to a manager, especially a rookie manager. And despite all the offense the Orioles had given him in the offseason, they hadn't addressed their pitching problems; that is, erratic Sidney Ponson ace of a rotation filled with young, unproven starters.

The Orioles did little to upgrade their rotation for 2005, but expectations are high, and so is the pressure on Mazzilli and the organization to win. The acquisition of Sammy Sosa has added to those expectations, and the arrival of the Nationals has added to the pressure. It doesn't help that 11 of the Orioles' first 22 games are against the Red Sox and Yankees.

But the Orioles' attitude this spring has been, for the most part, very upbeat, led by Mazzilli. The Orioles say they believe their starting pitching, which is still young and unproven, is going to be good. When pitching coach Ray Miller – who was the Orioles pitching coach for 8½ seasons during the glory years in the late '70s and early '80s – took over after 69 games last season, the Orioles had the highest ERA in the league. But for the final 93 games, they had the second best ERA.

Under Miller, the starters' ERA went from 5.94 to 4.44. Miller raved all spring about his young pitchers, especially Erik Bedard, who has refined his changeup after watching the success of Johan Santana's changeup last season. "I wouldn't have come back this year if I didn't see what I needed to see last year," Miller said. "This is one of the best group of young arms that I have seen here."

If the rotation makes a step forward, the Orioles will have a winning record for the first time since 1997, and might contend briefly in a division dominated by Boston and New York. The Baltimore bullpen should be excellent, especially if B.J. Ryan is as good a closer as he was a setup man last year (122 strikeouts in 87 innings). The Orioles have a chance to be spectacular offensively: they can start six players – Melvin Mora, Tejada, Sosa, Palmeiro, Lopez and Jay Gibbons – who had at least 100 RBI in either 2003 or 2004.

With hopes cautiously high in Baltimore, a fast start is necessary for Mazzilli, who is signed through 2005, and has two, one-year options. His owner, Peter Angelos, is used to winning at whatever he tries. And, Mazzilli wasn't Angelos' first choice for manager – Mazzilli was selected by co-general managers Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan. Had Mazzilli been Angelos' first choice, chances are, he would have a little more rope this year.

Mazzilli hasn't seemed bothered this spring by the pressure of winning. He seems to be relying more on his coaches, especially Miller, which is essential. "He's one of the best I've seen at communicating," Miller said. And Mazzilli no longer says things like, "This is how we did things with the Yankees," which is good, because no team operates like the Yankees.

Mazzilli is in Baltimore with a better team than last year. The Orioles will score a ton of runs, they'll be fun to watch, they'll finish over .500 and Mazzilli will make it through the season.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.