In East, only O's in Jays' league

JOHN EISENBERG

July 12, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Back in the spring, the Blue Jays' voluble third baseman, Kelly Gruber, announced one day that his club would win the American League East by 15 games.

This, of course, was met by smirks all around. As a wise baseball man once said -- it was either Roger Angell or J. J. Bautista -- "Those who make such declarations invariably wind up swallowing them by mistake, like chewing tobacco." Or something like that.

Anyway, as the All-Star break arrives with a chance to stop and make sense of the season, it turns out Gruber was closer to the truth than anyone thought.

The East is no longer the Least of legend, not with two teams on a pace to win 102 and 95 games, but there still are a lot of teams going nowhere. The Red Sox are old and slow and don't hit even in Fenway. It is a nothing summah in Bahston except for Teddy getting married again. The Yankees don't have enough pitching, illegal or otherwise. If they were going anywhere, would they be so excited about getting George Steinbrenner back?

The big-shouldered, square-jawed Tigers are too one-dimensional to make a dent in anything other than someone else's face. The Indians are the Indians, although a little better than the Indians, if you catch the drift.

The Brewers are one team with substance, but they don't have the rotation and they're simply a notch below.

No, the Blue Jays and their $35 million payroll are the goods in the division. There is only one team than can prevent them from turning the race into the 15-game blowout Gruber foretold.

Bawlmer, hon.

You can't blame Gruber for ignoring the Orioles as he tried to envision a team capable of challenging his. The Orioles were sharp in the spring, but still looked too young and mottled by uncertainty to finish higher than third.

But that was BB (Before Brady). And before Rick Sutcliffe proved sturdier than anyone had imagined. And before Mike Devereaux and Mike Mussina and Gregg Olson's sinkerball and all these sellouts in a row and, well, you know the story.

But as they always said in vaudeville after the singing monkeys had left the stage: What's next?

This season has been as entertaining at Camden Yards as in any other park in the bigs. Just about everywhere else there is either declining attendance, failed expectations or doomsday headlines such as the one that ran in Detroit when the Tigers had to borrow money to meet their payroll. It has been an oasis here. That was predictable with a new ballpark opening. That it houses a contender has trebled the thrill.

All of which begs the question: Is there more coming? Can the club keep it up and contend into September?

Understand, the Jays are the better team. They hit more consistently and have a deeper rotation. But that doesn't mean the Orioles can't sustain a challenge. (See: 1989.) It can be done. But some things have to happen. Such (you ask) as what? Well, here are the Orioles' five checkpoints for contending:

* Sutcliffe. He wasn't one of the three Orioles to make the All-Star team, but he is the club's MVP thus far because of his influence on Mussina and Ben McDonald and the way he just makes the team seem so much bigger. The surprise is that he has pitched so many innings after missing almost two years with arm trouble. The question is whether all those innings will catch up with him in the end.

* Balanced bats. It is the story of the Orioles' better-than-imagined offense. They are getting almost as many RBI from the seventh, eighth and ninth hitters as the third, fourth and fifth. And, of course, Anderson and Devereaux are carrying the load at Nos. 1 and 2. That's production across the lineup, as varied as any in the majors.

* New blood. As constituted, the Orioles don't have the stuff to catch up and stick at the top. They have leveled off at .500 after their fast start. They need a Glenn Davis to finally get hot, or an Arthur Rhodes to take off, or something you can't envision right now. There has to be a new name in the mix.

* Luck. The axiom is that it evens out in the end, but that's hogwash. The Jays are playing four games with Oakland this weekend when the Athletics are without Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson. The Orioles could use a few similar breaks -- and a few less like a scuffed ball hitting Chris Hoiles' wrist.

* Blow Jays. Their ability to implode, regardless of the names in uniform, is a modern baseball legend. They signed Jack Morris and Dave Winfield to keep it from happening again, and both have come up big. If the Orioles are going to catch up in the standings, the Jays need to do the wobble. Just as they always do.

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