The banter, that was the best sign. Gregg Olson acted downright jovial after The Big Scare, exchanging barbs with Rick Sutcliffe, joking about the flat tire he got driving to the game -- two blowouts in one day, ha, ha, ha.
"That speaks a lot. That will make me sleep better tonight," Orioles trainer Richie Bancells said of Olson's buoyant spirits. "He feels there's nothing severe. But we need some time to tell."
Just minutes earlier, Olson had doubled over in pain after a pitch to his first batter in the ninth inning. He then threw a practice
toss with Bancells and manager Johnny Oates watching, and doubled over again.
Now he was saying it was a cramp, only a cramp, a tiny nothing in his left side. The Orioles had just beaten the Chicago White Sox, 5-3, with Todd Frohwirth earning the save. Olson was optimistic about his condition. So was everyone else.
The reality is, nothing more will be known until today. It's possible Olson has a strained lateral oblique muscle, the injury that sidelined Ben McDonald at the start of 1990. Leaving nothing to chance, Oates swiftly devised a backup plan.
For the Orioles, it doesn't get much scarier than this. Shortstop Cal Ripken is easily their most indispensable player, but Olson isn't far behind. It's difficult enough to find a closer, much less one who deserves to be an All-Star.
Olson converted 21 of his first 23 save chances before blowing two in a row last weekend in Minnesota. If he is indeed hurt, the only consolation for the Orioles would be that Frohwirth and Alan Mills appear capable of replacing him short-term.
Mills improved his record to 7-1 last night after Joe Orsulak hit a solo homer and Brady Anderson an RBI single to break a 3-3 tie in the eighth. Frohwirth allowed a single to Lance Johnson after replacing Olson on a 3-2 count, then got the final three outs for his third save.
How valuable is Olson?
It's all relative.
"Right now, I think we can replace Olson easier than we can replace Anderson, simply because of the way Frohwirth and Mills are throwing," Oates said. "I wouldn't want to lose either of them. But we don't have another leadoff hitter who can steal bases and get on base."
That's not a knock on Olson, it's a statement on the strength of the bullpen and the value of Anderson, whose 55 RBIs and 28 steals should make him a cinch -- repeat, a cinch -- to be chosen as a reserve for the American League All-Star team.
Still, imagine the Orioles without Olson. Oates was forced to do just that last night. Frohwirth would be his closer, Mills his primary setup man, Mike Flanagan his lefthander. Jose Mesa probably would rank behind a new addition -- most likely righthander Richie Lewis -- in the long role.
Lewis, a starter at Rochester, is expected to be promoted today if Olson goes on the disabled list. Another Rochester pitcher, lefthander Arthur Rhodes, will start tonight's series opener against Minnesota as the replacement for Storm Davis (15-day DL, pulled groin).
Life without Olson? "It would be like the first day after Ripken didn't play shortstop," Flanagan said, raising an even more harrowing thought. "When they're not there, that's when you realize how good they are. These guys are hard to replace."
The encouraging part is, Olson seemed absolutely certain he'd recover, prompting Sutcliffe to adopt an unmerciful rather than mournful approach. "Guess your next outing will be Tuesday in the All-Star Game," Sutcliffe said, joking. "You can bail out on the Twins."
Olson shot back, "When are you pitching?" but Sutcliffe replied, "You can't come into my game." Later, Olson said he was driving faster on I-83 than Sutcliffe can throw his fastball. "I'd like to deny it," Sutcliffe said, smiling. "But I can't."
Actually, Olson probably should have known it would be a bad day when his tire blew out. His father Bill attached the spare with the help of a friendly but unknown police officer. "He left like the Lone Ranger," Olson said. "He escorted me to the stadium, then he was gone."
More than six hours later, Olson experienced a grabbing sensation on his left side after his 2-1 pitch to Johnson, then the same thing but worse after 3-1. Amazingly, he threw a strike on that last pitch. Even then, he thought the cramp would quickly disappear.
It didn't, so Bancells tested Olson's muscles in the clubhouse, trying to identify the problem by reproducing the pain. That much he accomplished, but Olson reported such mild discomfort, Bancells couldn't be certain his injury was a strain.
Bancells planned to check again on Olson first thing this morning, and Oates told him, "Don't call me unless it's something bad." The manager did not expect his phone to ring. "I'm going to bed counting on Gregg for tomorrow," he said, not even crossing his fingers.