3-0 Orioles know last-to-first Twins bloomed in spring

March 09, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Do the Orioles have visions of the Minnesota Twins dancing in their heads?

OK, so they've only played 10 percent of their exhibition games. Still, three straight wins is heady stuff for a team that hasn't had a winning preseason since 1984.

And that's not all. Last year the Orioles won only 10 games in a 162-game schedule when they scored three or fewer runs. Yesterday's 3-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays was their second such victory in three exhibition starts.

The three starting pitchers -- Bob Milacki, Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina -- did not allow a baserunner, let alone a hit or run. Here it is only the fourth day of the exhibition season and Rick Sutcliffe, today's scheduled starter against the White Sox, is already under the gun.

A year ago, fresh from a last-place finish, the Minnesota Twins kicked butt all spring, finishing with a 21-10 preseason record. Despite a slow start, it carried over into the regular season and the Twins won the World Series in an improbable matchup against another former last-place team, the Atlanta Braves (who were 15-12 in preseason play).

It all adds up to nothing guaranteed, but the Orioles are quietly going about their business as though they expect to be successful. So, what do you tell people who want to get excited after three exhibition games?

"Tell them to adopt my personality," said manager John Oates. "I have a blah personality. Tell them to take it for what it is -- a bunch of men getting ready to play a boy's game."

But if some people, including his players, want to get excited about the Orioles' best spring start in recent memory, that's fine with Oates. "We started out with the intention of getting in shape, and to have some fun," he said. "And the only way to have fun in this game is to win.

"It's no fun to lose -- not as a player, not as a manager, not as a fan. There's nothing wrong with getting excited. If you can't get excited when you're winning, when are you going to get excited?"

The success the Twins had last year from the start of spring training is not lost on Oates. "If you start thinking you're going to win -- there's something to that," he said. "If I didn't believe that I wouldn't have said that one of our goals was to win as many games as possible down here.

"Believe me, I've thought of this -- we haven't been behind in a game yet," said Oates.

The person who should be the most excited, pitching coach Dick Bosman, doesn't try to hide the pleasure derived from the first three games, but he sounds a realistic note. "There are going to be some rough spots," he said.

"The pitchers are definitely ahead of the hitters at this time of the spring. But it's nice to see them throwing strikes -- and throwing them with pitches other than fastballs," said Bosman.

"They came to camp in great shape and seem to be really focused. It's nice to get off on a positive note, doing some things we planned on doing."

One thing Bosman has stressed is pitching ahead in the count, and the early returns are more than satisfying, especially among the starters. "We're being aggressive," said Bosman. "We have to take advantage of our defense and the best way to do that is to get the ball in play quickly.

"We're getting ahead of hitters and making them swing the bat early in the count."

Pitching, of course, is always the equalizer in baseball, which the Orioles have found out the last two years. Oates admits that a continuation of the pitching problems in the early exhibitions could have had a disastrous effect.

"When we pitch, we have a chance to win," he said. "Every team has a chance to win when it pitches. If we had started out losing games 9-3 it could have been very damaging. Now, even if we hit a snag, we've bought some time."

It's only three games, but there is definitely a different atmosphere around the Orioles this year. It is emphasized when the starting pitchers perform as they have thus far.

"I like how everything is going," said shortstop Cal Ripken, who has four RBIs in the two games he's played. "Everything is going smoothly."

It is far too early to jump to rash, optimistic conclusions. The Orioles still have a lot of questions that need to be answered, especially about the makeup of the roster.

But, while running his first major-league training camp, Oates has the best possible scenario working for him. Winning is one thing. Winning with strong pitching (Mussina overmatched the Blue Jays in his two innings yesterday) is the necessary bonus.

"From a positive standpoint, it was important for us to get off to a good start," said Oates. "There is no better way to forget last year than by winning games."

After today's game against the White Sox, Oates will have used 10 starters and beginning tomorrow he will begin the gradual process of stretching them out. "We'll let them throw between 45 and 50 pitches the next time around," said Oates. "We've got two 'B' squad games scheduled this week, which will enable us to make sure everybody gets enough work."

In the meantime, if anybody wants to fantasize about the 1991 Minnesota Twins, well, you have the manager's permission.

He may, as he claims, have a blah personality, but he also gets excited about winning.

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