NEW YORK -- The Orioles have won six straight games for the first time this season, moving within 2 1/2 games of third place. But manager Frank Robinson had other considerations last night when he adjusted his pitching rotation for the final nine games.
Robinson said the club's three hottest pitchers -- righthanders Jose Mesa, Dave Johnson and Ben McDonald -- will start the final series against Toronto next week if the AL East title has still not been decided.
Toronto defeated Milwaukee 9-5 last night to increase its lead over idle Boston to 1 1/2 games. The two contenders face each other three times this weekend at Fenway Park. After that, Toronto heads to Baltimore, and Boston hosts Chicago.
Robinson announced his sweeping pitching changes last night after the Orioles beat New York 6-3 in 10 innings. Anthony Telford will make his final start against the Yankees tonight (7:30, HTS). Jeff Ballard will make his first start since July 16 in the series finale tomorrow.
Johnson and McDonald will then pitch the first two games in Cleveland. Robinson has not yet decided on a starter for Saturday, but he said Bob Milacki will make his first start since July 30 in the series finale Sunday.
The odd man out is Pete Harnisch, who remained in Baltimore yesterday to be examined by club physician Charles Silberstein. Harnisch, 24, was diagnosed as having tendinitis in his right (pitching) shoulder. He leads the club with 188 2/3 innings.
Robinson considered shutting Harnisch down earlier, but the second-year righthander wanted to continue pitching. On Friday he evened his record at 11-11 by defeating Milwaukee. His next start was scheduled for tomorrow night.
"It's not serious," Robinson replied when asked about Harnisch's condition. "As I've said before, I think it's just a matter of wear-and-tear on his arm. He'll give it a good rest over the winter, and he should be fine for spring training."
Robinson indicated Sunday that he would prefer Mesa to pitch against Toronto anyway, and the rookie did nothing to change his mind last night, battling through seven difficult innings before leaving with a 3-2 lead.
Mesa has worked into the sixth and allowed three or fewer earned runs in each of his six starts. Last night he gave up eight hits and four walks, but the Yankees touched him for only two runs -- on back-to-back RBI singles by Don Mattingly and Kevin Maas in the third inning.
The Yankees tied the score against reliever Curt Schilling in the eighth -- Schilling now has three blown saves, all in the last two weeks -- but the Orioles ended the four-hour, five-minute marathon after a leadoff homer by Cal Ripken and two-run double by Bill Ripken in the 10th.
Reliever Gregg Olson worked the bottom half and tied the club record Don Aase set in 1986 with his 34th save. The six-game winning streak matches the club's longest in September since 1983. The staff ERA during this stretch is a stunning 2.25.
It all makes for a nice finish, but Robinson said last week he would rework his rotation for Toronto if necessary, following the traditional logic that a pennant should be decided under the most competitive conditions possible.
Mesa is not yet assured of a spot in the 1991 rotation, but his selection for the final series indicates he will be a leading contender next spring. Johnson is the club's leading winner at 12-8. McDonald is the rookie sensation who has won seven games since July 21.