It's June soon, and still no swoon

MIKE LITTWIN

May 25, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

For you calendar junkies, it's not "only May" anymore. Now, it's getting close to June.

The season's more than a quarter done, and still the Orioles are in first place.

Here's the deal: It looks like they could stick around.

You see, these are not the pesky Orioles or the miracle Orioles. So far, they've been winning on merit. They hit, they pitch, they field. In other words, they've been solid.

"Over the course of a season, you have your ups and downs," said Johnny Oates, a solid manager. "I think we have enough to have more ups than downs.

"I'm excited."

He should be excited. He had to be thrilled by yesterday's game. The Orioles fell behind right away, and Bob Milacki, not always solid, was not exactly on his game, and the Orioles had lost five of their past six. And, you know, teams can fall apart in times like that.

And then Brady Anderson leads them back.

Yes, Brady Anderson.

Brady Anderson won't go away. He's not just the left fielder for the Orioles. He's a metaphor for their season.

The Orioles had been in a little slump, and Anderson had been in a little slump. It was the first for both this season. That's probably not a coincidence.

"I think it's time we stop waiting for Brady to fail," said Oates, who might as well have been talking about the entire ballclub. "He may bomb out the rest of the summer, but he's thrilled me so far. I'm going to believe in him unless he proves me wrong."

Coming off a 1-for-19 stretch and with five strikeouts in his past nine at-bats, Anderson had three hits yesterday. He hit a homer, his sixth, that tied the game. He drove in a run, his 31st, with a two-out single in the eighth to put away the game.

The homer came in the fifth, after the Angels had pulled ahead, 3-2, on Mike Fitzgerald's home run. The Orioles, according to Oates, came back to the dugout a little down. Oates said he offered up a few verbal jabs at the team. But it was Anderson who did the heavy lifting.

"It can get frustrating for me," Anderson said. "You hear: 'Is he just off to a good start or what?' Let's wait till the end of the year. It's hard when you're constantly reminded of times you did poorly in the past."

People wait for Anderson to slip. They wait for the Orioles to slip.

And it's completely understandable.

But there's more going on for the Orioles than sellout crowds (they got their 10th yesterday in 23 games at Camden Yards) and a lot of players with new facial hair.

They've got a solid pitching staff, led by the two youngsters, who might be coming into their own. Do you wonder when Mike Mussina is going to fail? Probably not. They've got Gregg Olson, who has new facial hair and the old curveball. Milacki is 4-2 now, and Rick Sutcliffe, who's struggling, predicts Milacki might win nine in a row.

"You can see his confidence level rising," Sutcliffe said. "You win a game like the one yesterday, when you don't pitch that great, and you feel like you're going to win all of them."

The Orioles' ERA is second in the league. They're also second in runs scored per game. Chris Hoiles seems to hit the ball hard only about nine of every 10 at-bats. You know about Anderson. But the good news for the Orioles is that the players they know are going to hit haven't done much yet. Randy Milligan is just starting to hit. It's late May. "It's my time," Milligan said the other day. Cal Ripken had better swings this weekend than he'd had since spring. Glenn Davis, get ready, has a seven-game hitting streak. Anything's possible.

Besides, everything always looks better in the clubhouse when a team ends a tough homestand by winning a series with a game it might not have won.

"It was a big one," said Oates, who usually likes to say that all wins are equal.

Anderson did say that: "Every game is a big game." But he was forced to add that it would be a different feeling heading to the West Coast if they'd lost yesterday.

"It was huge win," Sutcliffe said. "We have a tough homestand, and we come out of it in first place."

They think about first place, too. Don't let the players kid you. They know where they are. They know what they've done. They like it. They'd like to get used to it.

This isn't to say that the Orioles are going to stay in first place. They play nine games on the coast, and history suggests 4-5 would be a good trip and 3-6 very possible. And, in any case, you still have to like Toronto to win the East. But the Orioles have played the first 42 games as if they mean to contend. They may bomb out, but they haven't disappeared yet. Just check the standings.

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