Can spring seducing mean ERA reducing?

JOHN EISENBERG

March 21, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Well, here we go. The Orioles are seducing us. Isn't that something?

It wasn't supposed to happen. Not this spring. Not with a team coming off a 95-loss season. But here we go. The Orioles are seducing us with their starting pitching.

We know better. We do. We don't chew tobacco but we know a few things, right? We know it is only spring, that the games don't matter, that mirages are a staple of the season. We know it is an unwise man who invests in March's progress.

No matter. We are caught. The seduction is under way. How could it not be?

Talk about a fantasy camp. The Orioles' starters have been no less pitcher-perfect than they were pitiful during the 1991 season. It is a best-case spring. Every day, the starting pitcher is Sandy Koufax.

Life can't be this easy, can it? A dynamite rotation doesn't just appear from nowhere in one off-season, does it? A huge black hole doesn't just close in an instant, does it? Depends on how far we are willing to allow this spring seduction to take us.

The numbers: 50 innings pitched, seven runs allowed. The club has won eight games in a row, hasn't even been behind in 70-something innings. The starters are the story. It always helps when you never allow a run. Bob Milacki, Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald, Rick Sutcliffe -- Koufax every day.

The news has been so ridiculously positive that it was somehow almost a relief when McDonald got knocked around a little yesterday by the Blue Jays. It was time for something to go less than perfect. The Orioles were teasing baseball's gods of probability. No one stacks such daunting numbers without suffering.

Anyway, even after yesterday McDonald's spring ERA (2.57) was better than that of any starter in 1991. But it isn't those or any numbers that have manager John Oates encouraged.

"I don't get so excited about the results, as good as they are," he said yesterday. "What excites me is the way they're all throwing. They can blacken your eye. The last two or three years we've thrown [onto the mound] three or four [starters] throwing 82 mph. Now we're throwing five guys going 92."

Not that throwing 82 is bad, mind you. A couple of pitchers named Flanagan and McGregor won a few games doing that. "But," Oates said, "you just have to have someone who can scare the other team. I feel a lot better now about us in that regard."

Yes. And so the seduction begins. Isn't that something? This was supposed to be such a mild, simple spring. Sixth-place team comes to camp modestly improved, gets picked for fifth, maybe fourth. But now: Koufax every day. And so we start thinking bigger. How can we not? Just listen.

Oates on Sutcliffe: "He is as healthy and throwing as well as I've seen him in a long time."

On Milacki: "Changing speeds, spotting pitches well, throwing sliders behind in the count. He finished strong [in 1991] and picked right up."

On Mussina: "Tremendous."

On Mesa: "He is flat out bringing it. [Backup catcher Mark] Parent said he was throwing 95 in the bullpen the other night."

Storm who?

"I've got 13 guys fighting for 10 spots, which is great" Oates said. "The last couple of years here, it was seven guys fighting for 10 spots. That 'seven for 10' gets real rough once the season starts."

OK, maybe it's not the most dramatic seduction ever. The Orioles don't figure to rate with Toronto or Boston regardless of the state of their pitching. But this is all about making 1992 at least more interesting than 1991. About the club getting back its self-respect.

And see, it all starts with the starters. Cal Ripken has picked up this spring right where he left off, and Glenn Davis is healthy and hammering again, but the starting pitching is what will either give this season some body or leave it formless.

All you can do is blink hard and wonder if this spring fling is a miracle of the Florida sun, or, as Oates said yesterday, "maybe the start of a real interesting season." Could it be? Could life possibly be this easy? Snap your fingers -- presto, a rotation?

"Just keep in mind that it's spring training" Oates said, refusing to invest too much. "Not only do we have 162 games to play, we're just halfway through the spring training schedule. If you get all excited you're setting yourself up to fall off the wall."

Maybe so. But there are reasons to wonder whether it's wrong to be seduced. Mussina looks like the real thing, a star in the making. Milacki looks solid. So does Sutcliffe. It is almost impossible not to be seduced at least a little. Regardless, there is substance there to consider. That certainly is a change.

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