Retooled offense a healthy success But some pitchers hurting as Orioles head north

April 05, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Baltimore Orioles left Florida last night, their pitching staff a little banged up but their claim to legitimate contention in the American League East still very much intact.

They played their final Grapefruit League game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and headed north for a two-game exhibition series against the Boston Red Sox this weekend at RFK Stadium Washington. That is where the final roster moves will be made and the final questions will be answered before the team opens the regular season Monday against the Chicago White Sox at Memorial Stadium.

But it was in Florida that the 1991 Orioles began to take shape. It was here that the club unveiled its revamped, recharged offensive lineup, though a string of nagging injuries kept it from coming together until the final two weeks of the exhibition season.

First baseman Glenn Davis still is trying to shake the neck strain he suffered in his first exhibition appearance, but it has not kept ,, him from producing at the plate. Dwight Evans played only sparingly this spring, but still showed that he can make a significant contribution. Cal Ripken has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball, perhaps in part because of the big hitters that now follow him in the lineup.

"It's been very positive," manager Frank Robinson said. "We're not going to make any excuses. We're going back to Baltimore and we're goingafter the American League East title."

There certainly is strength in the offensive numbers. More than a week remained in exhibition play when the Orioles broke the club record for runs. They went on to better club standards for hits and home runs, and could end up with the highest spring batting average in team history.

But the .289 team batting average the Orioles carried into last night's game against the New York Yankees was six points lower than the combined batting average of opposing hitters this spring, a sign that not all is right with the Orioles pitching staff.

The two most valuable pitchers in the organization -- Ben McDonald and Gregg Olson -- are hurting, and three potential starters have not pitched well.

"You're always going to come out of spring training with some bumps and bruises," general manager Roland Hemond said. "I think everything will come together when the season starts. I'm very excited."

The Orioles opened camp facing a number of important questions. Six weeks later, most of them have been answered, a couple have not.

Robinson came to Florida looking for a consistent leadoff hitter, and it looks as if he found one. Center fielder Mike Devereaux is hitting .369 with a .442 on-base percentage and three home runs.

The team also needed to find out whether career first baseman Randy Milligan could make a successful switch to the outfield. The experiment was delayed when Milligan suffered a sprained ankle in the opening game of the Grapefruit League season, but he will open the season as the everyday left fielder. He has done nothing to hurt himself at the plate, batting .359 with four home runs and 11 RBI in just 40 at-bats.

Evans remains something of a mystery, though he is expected to be an active participant in the Orioles' offensive renaissance. The club wanted to know whether he could play in the outfield. He played a handful of games in right. Robinson wanted to know whether he could contribute on a regular basis despite irregular playing time. Evans swung the bat well whenever he was in the lineup. But his durability figures to be at issue throughout the season.

Robinson has saved the toughest decision of the spring until last. He has to choose between third-base candidates Craig Worthington and Leo Gomez, both of whom have risen to the challenge presented them at the start of training camp.

Worthington is batting .321 and leading the team with 17 RBI. Gomez is batting .345 with three homers and nine RBI.

If Robinson's February appraisal of the situation stands -- that the job was Worthington's to lose -- then Gomez will be going back to the minor leagues despite a great offensive performance this spring. But the decision apparently will not be made until after Sunday's game.

The pitching staff is beginning to take shape, but the status of right-handers Bob Milacki and Jeff Robinson remain unclear. Milacki has struggled all spring and has a 7.65 ERA to prove it. Robinson has given up a lot of runs, too, but has shown subtle improvement the past couple of times out. Both will start the season in the bullpen, since the Orioles will use only three starters through the first 11 days of the season, but somebody is going to be the odd man out when it's time to go to a five-man rotation.

Right-hander Dave Johnson also has struggled (0-2, 6.38 ERA), but he will be the third pitcher in the condensed rotation.

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