Orioles' upsurge gives intriguing hope for future

August 26, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

As near as can be determined, this is what was expected when the season began. The difference is that most people thought the Orioles might go on a roll for a couple of months early -- instead of a couple of weeks long after the contenders had been identified.

Yesterday's 7-3 win over the AL West-leading Minnesota Twins, the team with the best record in baseball, left the Orioles with a 9-5 record for the last two weeks. With the exception of a three-game sleepwalk in Milwaukee, it has been a generally impressive stretch.

Inconclusive, for sure, but intriguing nonetheless.

"I really don't know how you might have envisioned this team," said manager John Oates. "I'm experimenting right now.

"But you look at the lineup we're putting on the field every day right now and you'd have to say it's the best we've had all season.

"And," said Oates, "you tell yourself that's the worst it can be for the future. This is what we got, now what do we do to upgrade? Where do we try to upgrade? What do we subtract to get another piece and make the puzzle fit?"

Some of the encouraging signs revolve around the return of Glenn Davis. Others come from a young, but still unproven, pitching staff that is still erratic, but with obvious potential.

Since his return after a four-month absence, Davis has contributed, but is still admittedly struggling with his timing. "I'm getting there," he said after going 1-for-4 [and hitting two other balls sharply]. "There's still a little adjusting to be done, but it's coming."

As advertised, Davis has appeared to make the entire lineup more formidable. His presence in the No. 4 spot adds an offensive dimension that has been missing most of the year.

Davis and Randy Milligan (1-for-3, two runs scored and two driven in yesterday) have alternated between first base and designated hitter for the last week. It's a scenario that is likely to continue the rest of the year.

"I'm going to stay that way right now," said Oates. "I don't know if it will be 50-50, or if we'll keep alternating. But Glenn's going to continue playing some at first base.

"It's better for us, and also other organizations, to see him play [in the field]. And I want to keep both bats in the lineup every game. We've got enough off days the rest of the way that neither figures to need rest," said Oates.

With Joe Orsulak blossoming as a solid No. 2 hitter (he's been there in 14 of the 21-straight games in which he's hit safely), the lineup has a look of stability, with Milligan, Chito Martinez and Leo Gomez following Davis.

Orsulak started the four-run fourth inning with a single and the three-run fifth with a double, and seven different players figured in the scoring yesterday. It is significant to note that the seven runs were scored by the 2-through-6 hitters and driven in by those occupying the 5-through-8 spots in the lineup -- without benefit of a home run.

"We had a good offensive performance," said Mike Mussina (2-3), who turned in another strong outing himself, allowing seven hits in eight-plus innings. "We got some two-out hits -- and the three runs in the fifth inning were big, very big."

Those runs came immediately after Mussina's only troublesome inning. He gave up two runs in the top of the fifth after the Orioles had taken a 4-0 lead.

"I was a little frustrated with myself in that spot," said Mussina. "After getting a lead like that, I didn't make good pitches. Then we came right back and got three more."

After five major-league starts, Mussina is leaving a trail of evidence that he is ready to stake a solid claim on a spot in the starting rotation. The 22-year-old righthander has done nothing to dispel the notion that he is advanced beyond his years.

"If I can continue to pitch as well as I have through the first five starts, then I'll be pleased," said Mussina, who opened yesterday's game by striking out the first three hitters. "That's usually a bad omen," he said, "so you have to put it aside and start over. I had pretty good stuff -- it wasn't nasty, but overall I thought it was good."

It was still good enough in the ninth inning, after Mike Pagliarulo led off with a floating single to left, that Oates let the rookie determine his immediate fate. "When he came out he said, 'I haven't made up my mind yet [whether to make a pitching change], so if you can convince me, go ahead," related Mussina. "So naturally, I said, 'I can get this guy out.' "

A pinch-single by Chuck Knoblauch made the decision easy for Oates, who brought in Todd Frohwirth to record his second save. Not registering a complete game was only a mild disappointment to Mussina.

"The complete game doesn't mean anything -- unless there's a '0' on their side," he said. "If it's a shutout, that's a little different."

The win gave the Orioles two of three from the Twins, whose comfortable lead in the standings was not disturbed. "I'm glad they're gone," said Oates. "You're sitting there with a four-run lead in the ninth and you never know. They are an explosive club."

Still, it took a four-run ninth inning Saturday night for the Twins to escape being swept. "They got out of town by the skin of their teeth," said Davis.

For the last two weeks, the Orioles have indicated that, with continued improvement from their pitching staff, they can be competitive.

They have six more weeks to show whether the early expectations deserved to be carried over for another year.

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