Ben has to make it for Orioles to do so

MIKE LITTWIN

July 01, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

You've been there. You're riding down the road, doing 40, maybe 45, bopping along to Sister Souljah on the radio, when the right front tire is suddenly swallowed by a pot-hole the size of Montana.

Two things can happen:

-- You get a big bounce and you're back on the road, barely missing a beat.

-- The wheels fall off.

The Orioles have hit a pot-hole. They're checking for hubcaps now. But whatever happens in the end, they got a big bounce last night. This is not surprising because Rick Sutcliffe, the Big Bouncer himself, was pitching.

Nothing better has happened to the Orioles in this unlikely season than Sutcliffe. Well, maybe Boog's barbecue. Sutcliffe won his 10th game last night. He took a shutout bid into the sixth inning for the seventh time this season before the Orioles 17th consecutive sellout crowd. Is that enough numbers for you?

What can't he do? Sutcliffe is a team leader, a big-game pitcher, a bearded wonder and Ross Perot's possible vice-presidential choice.

And so, by the fourth inning, it was 10-0. Sure, it was. By the fourth, Brady Anderson was one hit shy of the cycle and Jeff Tackett was falling into the line of great Orioles home-run-hitting catchers.

The Orioles were playing the Dream Team to the Brewers' Cuba. I kept waiting for Magic Johnson to pick up a bat. Instead, Gentle Glenn Davis went 3-for-5, hit a homer and pushed his hitting streak to five games. Try to imagine a healthy Davis.

After last night, you could almost forget that the Orioles were a team that had hit a real danger point in the season.

Before the game, when it seemed important that the Orioles had lost 10 of 16, when Johnny Oates was saying he couldn't decide which pitcher to jettison from the starting rotation -- Jose Mesa or Bob Milacki, one pitching as poorly as the other -- Randy Milligan was talking about danger zones.

"We're not worried," Milligan was saying. "Anxious is a better word.

"Everything had been going so well. You wouldn't say it was coming easy, but we were getting used to winning. You're

confident. You know you're playing well. And then you lose a few games you expect to win, and you start asking yourself, 'What's wrong? Why aren't we winning?'

"Eventually, you snap out of these things."

They snapped out last night. But today is a new day as they say in the calendar trade.

It's a little bigger day, too. That's because Ben McDonald is pitching.

It's funny how some things work out. This was supposed to be the year to let Big Ben grow into the job. It was planned to be the low-pressure season, and then came the unexpected pennant race -- and the unavoidable attention.

"If we're 30-38, nobody's even noticing Ben," said Oates.

Instead, they're 44-32, one game off the lead, and with the same record they had in 1989 when McDonald was facing a different kind of pressure.

And so, it has to be McDonald. Who else?

You can't count on Mesa or Milacki or Storm Davis to step up big. Maybe it isn't fair to count on McDonald either, but he's the logical candidate. And he's close. Every game he's close. That's the maddening part.

In most games, he goes though stretches where he's unhitable and then come -- surprise -- hits in great bunches. Of course, there are some games where he's untouchable. Just not recently. He is 0-3 in his last five starts and has allowed 24 runs in his last 31 innings. These are not exactly road-to-Cooperstown numbers.

And yet, he started the season with great promise and also a 7-2 record. It's not as if there's no there there.

But here's the deal: With only two reliable starters -- Mike Mussina and Sutcliffe -- you do not get to 90 wins. With three starters who could combine for, say, 50 wins. . . .

OK, you want to see a scary statistic: In their first 35 games, the Orioles' staff produced a 2.88 ERA; in their next 40, a 4.89.

But there are scarier ones -- like the 95 losses the Orioles had last season.

And now it's July and the Orioles are a game behind Toronto.

Yes, it's July.

It was "only April," then it was "only May," and then it was "only June," and now, I suppose, it's "only July."

If the Orioles make it to "only September" in the pennant race, that would be something. But the key to understanding this season is that, whatever happens next, it has already been more than anyone could ask.

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