Until last night, John Oates refused to let himself wander into the land of the unknown, at least as it pertained to the Orioles.
But after a third straight win, 4-2, over the New York Yankees that featured strong pitching by Mike Mussina (3-4), Mike Flanagan and Gregg Olson (27th save) and two-run homers by Joe Orsulak (5) and Sam Horn (20), the manager tried to put this mishmash of a season into perspective.
"Is this the kind of game -- the starting pitcher going into the seventh inning, a save by Olson, a couple of two-run homers -- the Orioles expected when the season started?" Oates was asked.
It was similar to a hundred questions he has heard since replacing Frank Robinson May 24. In the past Oates has refused to be drawn into speculation, but this time, perhaps trying to put the issue to rest, he collected his thoughts and ran with them.
"This was the kind of game," he said, starting slowly, "that the Orioles expected -- if . . .
"If Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki pitched like they did in 1989 . . .
"If Jeff Robinson pitched like he did three years ago . . .
"If Jose Mesa pitched like he did the last month of last season . . .
4 "If Ben McDonald could step in as expected . . .
"If Craig Worthington played like he did as a rookie . . .
"If Glenn Davis hit 35 home runs . . . "
Oates stopped, but only briefly, perhaps trying to think of somebody he'd left out.
"None of those 'ifs' happened," he said.
"We came out of spring training with two givens -- that Junior [Cal Ripken] would drive in more than 80 runs and Olson would save 20-plus games. We've gotten both of those and then some."
Left unsaid was the obvious: The "ifs" far outweigh the "givens," especially considering that Davis came out of spring training in the latter category.
Now, the Orioles seem to have Milacki back on track, McDonald moving in the right direction and Mussina giving the pitching staff a degree of consistency for the first time. Davis is back in the lineup, and a presence even though he's struggling to regain his timing. Luis Mercedes has arrived to give hope there's a true leadoff hitter on the horizon. Mike Devereaux, Randy Milligan, Orsulak, David Segui, Bill Ripken, Dwight Evans, Horn and the "givens" have for the most part been solid performers, when healthy.
Toss in the performances of relievers Todd Frohwirth, Flanagan and Jim Poole and generally overlooked catchers Chris Hoiles and Bob Melvin and you've about covered the roster. Mix it all up, and the Orioles are . . . well, in all honesty they're about where they were this time last year.
Some of the names will change, but as the Orioles close out this year and prepare for next, the "ifs" still outnumber the "givens."
That's one of the reasons why the late-season experiments are so important to the Orioles -- and to Oates, who clearly is managing as though he will still be in charge next year.
"We've done a lot of things right the last three nights," said the manager who is still in limbo. "It [winning] gets more infectious every day. We've just got to do the best we can to get back as close as we can to .500."
The closest the Orioles can get to .500 is two games, and that would mean they would have to win their last 22. That isn't going to happen, but the Orioles are 16-13 against the four teams they play the rest of the way (Cleveland, Boston, New York and Detroit), and Oates gives the impression he senses the possibility of finishing on an upbeat.
That wouldn't necessarily erase the "ifs," but it might help ease some of the suspense going into the 1992 season.
Olson picked up his first save in three weeks last night. It was also his first save opportunity, and only his sixth appearance in that span.
"You don't bury your horse," said Oates, dispelling any notion he might have cooled on his closer. "He is the horse. "When one pitch can win or lose a game, the ball is going to be in his hand."
Olson came into last night's game with a runner on first, nobody out and the score 4-2. He gave up a single, then a sacrifice bunt put the tying run in scoring position. Olson struck out pinch-hitter Don Mattingly, walked pinch-hitter Pat Sheridan, then got Steve Sax to hit into a force to end the game.
Mussina gave up six hits in the seven innings he worked before giving way to Flanagan (1.46 ERA in his last 32 games). "I had pretty good stuff at times [he retired the first nine batters], and I was shaky other times [five hits, two runs in the fourth and fifth innings]," said the rookie righthander.
"That's seven [good performances] out of eight [starts]," said Oates.
Horn's homer was his fourth in his last 12 at-bats (eight RBIs). Five days ago I was more or less on the end of the bench cheering for everybody," said the lefthanded slugger.
"But a pinch-hit, a couple of starts and now I'm showing the Orioles what I can do. Hopefully, the more at-bats, the more production."
The Orioles' Instructional League team, which operated in Frederick last year, opens workouts tomorrow in Sarasota, Fla.
A total of 33 of the organization's youngest prospects, most with only Single A experience, will participate in the seven-week program. Games start on Tuesday and the informal league runs through Oct. 31.
The most recognizable names on the roster are shortstops Manny Alexander, who played this year at Frederick and Hagerstown, and Ricky Gutierrez, who split the season between Hagerstown and Rochester.