Surprise! Orioles aren't half bad 49 wins at mid-season is more than anyone could have hoped for

July 14, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

Let's be honest.

You didn't expect this.

No one could have, not after last year.

You held your breath for quite a while, not sure if it was the new digs, or just some cruel joke, or some masochistic baseball god setting you up for a season of exhilaration, only to leave you unfulfilled in October.

Yet, here's the All-Star break and they haven't wilted with the first heat wave.

Believe it or not, there's a pennant race afoot, and the Orioles aren't spectators.

They're in it.

Maybe to win it.

Brady Anderson, with the career .219 batting average, is in the All-Star Game, leading the team in homers and RBI.

Chris Hoiles, with 12 career homers before the season, has 14 before the break, and that's before he missed three weeks with a broken wrist.

Alan Mills has the best winning percentage in the major leagues, and more wins in relief than any other pitcher in the American League.

All totaled, a record of 49-38, just four games behind Toronto at the break.

How did this happen?

Here are a few of the highlights:

1) Rick Sutcliffe and Mike Mussina:

When Sutcliffe was signed as a free agent in the off-season from the Chicago Cubs, more than a few heads were scratched.

Why, those heads wondered, would the Orioles have interest in a 36-year-old starter with recent shoulder trouble who had only pitched 118 innings total in the last two seasons?

The answer became obvious in the season's first two weeks, when Sutcliffe had won three of his first four starts, with two shutouts. He has become the anchor of the Orioles' relatively youthful set of starters, leading the American League in starts (20), and placing in the top 10 in four other categories, bringing a wealth of experience, self-assuredness and pitching savvy.

"That's what we hoped for and we've gotten it in abundance," said pitchingcoach Dick Bosman.

Mussina has been nothing, if not consistent. In virtually every start, Mussina gets to at least the eighth inning, and in his first full season in the rotation and with a 2.40 ERA, the fifth-best in baseball, earned a place on the All-Star squad.

2) Anderson:

Anderson had seemingly used up all his chances with the Orioles, and was seemingly destined for oblivion or perhaps another stint at Rochester.

Instead, manager Johnny Oates gave him the left-field and leadoff slots, and told him to go out and play, and Anderson has done just that, batting .286 with 15 homers and 57 RBI, both marks among the AL's best.

"A surprise is something you don't expect. A surprise is something that's never happened before. Over the course of Brady's career, he's never played this well for a month, much less half a year," said Oates.

Anderson and center fielder Mike Devereaux, who is hitting .281 with 13 homers and 54 RBI, have given the Orioles one of the most potent tops of the lineup in baseball, as well as stellar defense.

3) Middle relief and Gregg Olson:

Save for Sunday's effort in withering heat and humidity against the Minnesota Twins, Mills and Todd Frohwirth have been brilliant during the first half.

Before Sunday, they had not allowed a run in 27 innings in the month of July, and had shut down the Twins and the Chicago White Sox in extra inning contests within 48 hours. Still, Mills' 1.36 ERA and Frohwirth's 1.74 are the lowest on the pitching staff.

Olson added a beard this season, but lost none of his effectiveness, becoming the youngest reliever to reach 100 career saves.

Sure, he flamed out in two situations in Minnesota on the Orioles' last road trip, but he's still converted 21 of 25 possible save situations.

4) Catching and defense:

Before he was struck on the right wrist by a Tim Leary pitch the Orioles contend was scuffed, Hoiles was a leading contender for the All-Star Game, with a .280 average and an improving ability to call a game and handle pitchers.

Since Hoiles' injury, Jeff Tackett has filled in nicely, batting .259 with five homers, a little less than half his total for his minor-league career.

The Orioles, who lead the major leagues in team fielding percentage, are on pace to tie the 1988 Twins, who committed 84 errors, an all-time seasonal low. If defense and pitching win championships, the Orioles seem to be well equipped.

5) The home ballpark:

The Orioles, who started off winning 13 of their first 17 games in their new Camden Yards playpen, have cooled considerably, but their 27 home wins is still second best in the American League.

Anderson and Devereaux have snatched back five potential home runs here, while no infielder has more than seven errors on the slower infield grass.

Amid all the good things, there are areas to be concerned about.

Except for Cal Ripken's 16- and 17-game hitting streaks, the middle of the Oriole order has not produced to its capabilities, and Ripken himself went 16 games without an RBI before Saturday.

The fourth and fifth starter slots have been a constant concern all season. Jose Mesa, who had the fifth spot, has already been bounced from the roster, and Bob Milacki, who has an ERA of nearly 12 in his last six starts, may be next.

Oates and Bosman have already turned to Storm Davis to patch one slot among the starters and may turn to rookie Arthur Rhodes next. If they don't work, the club will have to either make a trade or risk falling out of the race.

But even if that happens, remember:

Forty-nine wins at the break. Four games behind Toronto.

"I'll take it. [Toronto's Kelly] Gruber had them [the Blue Jays] winning it by 15 by Labor Day," said Oates. "We've got to hang on for a while just to prove him wrong."

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