How bad is the Orioles' situation? There are some reassuring signs

BASEBALL

June 02, 1991|By PETER SCHMUCK

It doesn't take very much to rekindle hope at this point in th season. The Baltimore Orioles seemed ready to give up on the 1991 division title a week ago, but a modest midweek winning streak at least got them looking in the right direction again.

Manager John Oates is right to take a day-by-day approach. The Orioles have a long list of injured players, and they have six teams ahead of them in the American League East standings, but there are a number of reasons to keep hope alive.

* Reason No. 1: They can't be as bad as they looked for the first six weeks of the season, and they aren't.

The pitching was atrocious. The hitting -- with a couple of notable exceptions -- was anemic. Even the defense was erratic. But things do have a tendency to even out over the course of a long season, as if this hasn't already been a very long season.

* Reason No. 2: Groin injuries have been known to heal.

The Orioles reached a point a couple of weeks ago when former manager Frank Robinson barely had enough healthy players to fill out the starting lineup. The day of his final game, 17 players showed up in the training room for treatment.

But Craig Worthington should be ready to return from the disabled list this week, and time will take care of the other bumps and bruises. Who knows, Glenn Davis might even be given a target date soon for his return from a rare neck injury.

* Reason No. 3: It has been done before -- just ask Ernie Whitt.

The Toronto Blue Jays got off to a 12-24 start in 1989, changed managers, and ended up in the American League Championship Series a few months later. So what if they had better overall talent than this Orioles team? Their fans were despairing in May and celebrating (at the Orioles' expense) in early October.

But this is no time to be scoreboard-watching. The Orioles have to concentrate on getting their house in order before concerning themselves with the rest of the neighborhood.

"We can't worry about where we are," pitcher Jeff Ballard was saying the other day. "You just have to win as many games as you can and when it comes down to the end of the year, you look up and see if you still have a chance.

"We dropped down 10 1/2 games early. We didn't feel very good about ourselves. Now, think we're feeling better about ourselves and we're pulling together."

* Ten days ago, Orioles pitching coach Al Jackson could not have said with any confidence that he would be employed right now. The talk shows were on his case. The pitching staff was in shambles. The front office was getting restless.

How bad was it?:

* In the three games against the Detroit Tigers that preceded Robinson's firing, Orioles starters averaged 2 2/3 innings and gave up 15 runs. The Orioles scored five runs in each game and were fortunate to avoid a sweep.

* The starters had lasted four innings or less in eight of their previous 14 games.

* They had pitched less than five innings 16 times. The club was 1-15 in those games.

* Opponents were averaging nearly 2 1/2 runs in the first three innings. By comparison, the Blue Jays were giving up an average of 3 1/2 runs per game.

But even when things looked the worst, Jackson preached patience. He expressed confidence that things would turn around, although he had to be wondering whether he would be around to see it happen.

"If I had not seen these people pitching up to their capabilities [in the past], it might be different," he said at the time, "but I know we can pitch better. I know we are not pitching up to our capabilities."

That confidence apparently has been rewarded. He survived the purge, and the starting rotation bounced back with a string of solid performances. That's why patience is considered a virtue.

*

If pitcher Orel Hershiser of the Los Angeles Dodgers makes a successful comeback from extensive shoulder reconstruction, he could end up with a place in both baseball and medical history.

Sports medicine pioneer Dr. Frank Jobe, who performed the surgery to reconstruct Hershiser's anterior capsule, said he wouldn't mind if the operation is henceforth referred to as "Orel Hershiser surgery."

"I think that is as good a name as any for it," Jobe said.

Fair is fair. The revolutionary tendon transplant that saved the career of former Dodgers left-hander Tommy John has become a fairly common procedure, and it is widely known as "Tommy John surgery."

Hershiser made his first major-league appearance in more than a year Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, testing his shoulder in a four-inning performance against the Houston Astros. It was a special night, even if Hershiser did not get outstanding results.

"We've had a whole year of building up to this, so you can't help having some emotion," Jobe said, "especially knowing what it means to him, what it means to the Dodgers and what it means to medicine."

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