Orioles stumble, but it's just start of the marathon


April 27, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

To help quell the low-grade panic that has arisen in our burg as a result of the Orioles' dull start in 1991, pushed anew no doubt by yesterday's news that Glenn Davis has a pain in the neck, here is a list of just some of the things that will occur before the long season ends:

Mother's Day.

Memorial Day.

Several dozen "business" trips by John Sununu.

Father's Day.

Independence Day.

Arena football!

The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

The U.S. Opens (golf and tennis).

Labor Day.

A Redskins-Cowboys game.

The start of a new NHL season (contingent on the current one ending).

Rosh Hashana.

Many inclusions and exclusions in the upcoming Democratic presidential race, the AL East of politics.

Six mortgage payments.

The beginning, middle and end of a summer downee-ocean.

Mowing my lawn. Mowing my lawn. Mowing my lawn.

New episodes of "America's Most Wanted."

Seventy-six games at Memorial Stadium.

Yeah, 76 to go.

Get the point?

It's early. Very early. Too early to wear shorts to the ballpark. Too early to get depressed. Too early to panic. Of course, if it turns out the damaged nerve in Davis' neck requires surgery and he is out for months, you can go right ahead and start wringing your hands and wailing inconsolably in the manner of a 3-year-old denied a Popsicle. That's the time to panic. But first, let's see what happens.

It's just too early right now. Some will argue that the season is well under way considering that J.J. Bautista has already been sent to the minors, certainly a time-tested indicator of the spawning of local hardball life, but as Yogi Berra once said of April in the majors, "It matters, but it don't." (That was either Yogi or someone else, possibly Kitty Kelley discussing the merits of double-sourcing facts, or maybe Willie Nelson on paying taxes.)

The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint, a life in the sports pages until -- get this -- the fifth week of the next NFL season. Six mortgage payments to go, friends. So the Orioles are off to a slow start. So they aren't hitting much. So their pitching has been iffy. So what?

They'll heat up. And slow down. And heat up. And slow down. It's what happens in baseball. A team can muddle along in fourth place for months without damaging its postseason chances. And hey, this is the AL East -- you can win the thing just muddling along.

Anyway, strange as it sounds for a team that has lost nine of its first 14 games, the Orioles actually have more than a few reasons to be encouraged by what has happened in these first two weeks of the season. (And, no, I haven't been smoking my notebook and No. 2 pencil.)

Consider the starting pitching. Jeff Ballard and Jose Mesa, two questionables in the spring, look as though they're going to be firm members of the rotation. Ballard almost threw a shutout his last time out; he's throwing much better than in 1990. Mesa has LTC been the club's best starter despite his 1-3 record, all four outings ranging from solid to exceptional.

And what about Dwight Evans? Remember all those questions about whether his sore back would enable him to play the outfield? Whether he was too old? So far he has been close to flawless afield and hit almost .300, and anyone who saw him throw out Paul Molitor at the plate last night saw that, indeed, his arm still resembles the one of legend. At 39, he is always one awkward step from the DL, but so far so good.

Mike Flanagan, meanwhile, seems intent on a perfect season. A revelation in relief after 16 years as a starter, he has allowed one earned run in 13-plus innings, and last night came in and escaped a bases-loaded, one-out mess in the eighth. Mark Williamson and Paul Kilgus are looking a little shaky, but Flanagan is holding up the bullpen.

So, Ballard, Mesa, Evans, Flanagan -- the Orioles are not without good news hidden in their 5-9 start. Get Ben McDonald winning and Randy Milligan hitting and this is a club with the wherewithal to be a player in the division. No, the catching isn't much and Dave Johnson is getting hit hard and there are slumps all over the lineup, slumps that have that hard, creased look to them, but remember the bottom line: it's sooooooo early.

The asterisk, again, is Davis' injury. The club should know by the middle of next week whether he's out for a while or just a few weeks, and if the news is bad, feel free to start blubbering and phoning people in a panicked frenzy late at night. If Davis goes down for months and months, this team is in trouble. (Too bad they didn't put his contract on a credit card. They could use buyer protection, go back and get a healthy player.)

But in keeping with the theme here, it's just too early to say what will happen to Davis, who was hitting a lot of home runs. The Orioles mentioned surgery, which sounds bad, but there wouldn't be any muscle cut, so who knows how long he might be out? We should have some answers by the time the weather heats up enough so the players stop wearing long-sleeve undershirts -- the same ones they'll be putting back on when the pennant races get tight in the autumn chill. Five months from now.

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