Orioles push the wrong buttons Strategical guessing game winds up in loss column for Robinson

April 23, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

CHICAGO -- OK, where do you want to start?

With Ben McDonald, you say?

Fine, that's easy. The saga of the big righthander can be described in four words: "Too little, too long."

How about the pinch-hitting scenario?

There was Ernie Whitt for Bill Ripken leading off the seventh inning with a one-run deficit; Sam Horn for Mike Devereaux with one out and trailing by two runs in the ninth; and nobody for either Craig Worthington or Chris Hoiles, representing the potential tying and go-ahead runs with two outs in the eighth.

Want some more? No problem.

There was McDonald mysteriously hanging curveballs long enough to pick up his first loss of the season. And, for those who like to get technical, there were back-to-back pitchouts as early as the second inning, perhaps the biggest strategical malfunction of the night.

You get the picture?

The Orioles' 8-7 loss to the Chicago White Sox here last night was a second-guesser's delight and a first-guesser's nightmare. Most of Frank Robinson's moves were explainable, even defensible, but they all inevitably became questionable when the manager took the collar for the long evening.

Let's take the game chronologically, by the numbers, from the start.

In the second inning, after being staked to a 2-0 lead thanks to a monstrous Glenn Davis home run, McDonald struggled with his curveball, but came within two feet of escaping. That was the distance between Bill Ripken's glove and Ozzie Guillen's ground ball single that drove in Chicago's first run.

With runners on first and third and two outs, McDonald had Scott Fletcher fighting off tough pitches and ran the count to 1-and-2. On a couple of the pitches Fletcher fouled off, Guillen was attempting to steal second (Dan Pasqua was on third), prompting Robinson to gamble he might be able to slide out of the inning with a cheap out.

Normally with your best pitcher facing the No. 9 hitter (though Fletcher shouldn't be considered an easy mark), the accepted strategy is to get out the man with the bat on his shoulder. "Yeah," Robinson conceded, "but that guy has worn us out. You take a chance, and if the guy's running it's a good play and you get out of the inning. Even if it goes to 3-and-2 you can still get the guy out."

Two pitchouts left Guillen strapped to first base (Chicago manager Jeff Torborg coached under Robinson at Cleveland, so he's got an inkling of the Orioles manager's instincts) and McDonald had a 3-and-2 count on Fletcher. Naturally, Fletcher rifled a double to left, scoring both runners and giving Chicago a 3-2 lead. It was the beginning of a long night for Robinson and the Orioles.

By the fifth inning, McDonald was losing it fast. His 106th, and last, pitch of the night was a towering two-run homer by Frank Thomas that gave the White Sox a 6-5 lead. The Orioles played catch-up the rest of the way, falling behind 8-5 before aborted rallies in the last two innings produced one run each.

"Ben wasn't as sharp as he's going to be," said Robinson. "He didn't have command of his curveball. When he did throw it for strikes, it didn't have any bite to it."

Despite all his problems, McDonald pitched very effectively in three of his five innings and probably would've fared better had he not gone to his breaking ball as often as he did. "Maybe I used it more than I should have," said McDonald, "but I've got to get over the hump.

"When you've had a sore arm, you remember the pain. The pain's not there anymore and I've got to forget about it. But sometimes that's tough to do."

There was still a lot more to the game (at three hours and 48 minutes it lasted long enough to have something for everyone) after McDonald, but not enough to get the Orioles over the hump.

Robinson decided to hit for Ripken leading off the seventh for the most basic reason. "What was the score?" he asked. "We were down a run and I wanted to take a shot, try to get something going."

He decided on Whitt (who drew a walk), rather than Horn, "because sometimes you go with a feel for the game, a hunch," said Robinson. It was only a factor because the move involved three players (Tim Hulett ran for Whitt and replaced Ripken) and indirectly could have affected strategy in the following inning.

Horn was available to hit for either Worthington or Hoiles in the eighth inning, but Robinson said he simply "chose not to do it."

Robinson is reluctant to take the bat out of the hands of players like Worthington and Hoiles this early in the season. But even if he had done so last night, it would have resulted in another multi-player move that wouldn't have produced the desired matchup.

Basically he had two chances to use Horn -- in the seventh inning, when starter Alex Fernandez was still pitching, and in the last inning against Bobby Thigpen, Chicago's ace reliever. Robinson chose the latter, and got a double from Horn, who eventually scored on Cal Ripken's single. But the fact that he never got his lefthanded home run threat to the plate representing the tying or lead run left him exposed to the second-guessers.

"You've got to go with how you feel," said Robinson. "It's a guessing game."

And for those who get to guess second, last night was a picnic.

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