Better not enough if Orioles are to be best A few parts needed to catch Toronto

July 16, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

This is the reality of the Orioles and their surprising, impressive and -- based on diminished preseason expectations -- wildly successful first half:

It wasn't good enough.

Sure, the Orioles won 49 of their first 87 games and remain on a pace to win more than 90 games this year. Who would have expected that when the club was sorting through the ruins of last year's 95-loss season? But if the point of all this is to win the American League East, there is some work to be done.

"For us to stay competitive, everybody's got to keep doing what they were doing," said manager Johnny Oates, who has steered his team through a difficult month to remain in view of the first-place Toronto Blue Jays. "I don't see why we can't. I think we're going to be a better club in October than we are now."

That would appear to be a must. The Orioles have struggled to recapture the magical formula that carried them through a two-month period in which they matched the more-talented Blue Jays almost step for step. They have slipped four games back in the standings, and could have been in real trouble if the Oakland Athletics had not taken three of four from the streaking Jays last weekend at SkyDome.

The pitching staff that carried the Orioles into contention has faltered at a critical juncture of the season. The question is whether it can be put back together in time to keep hope alive for a division title.

"We have to win a few more games than we did in the first half," shortstop Cal Ripken said. "I think the key to the first half was the starting pitching. Rick Sutcliffe was tremendous. Mike Mussina was great. Ben pitched well. If we can get that kind of pitching, we've shown that we can score some runs and we can make the defensive plays. So pitching is the key."

The club certainly has gone the way of the pitching staff. The team ERA on June 12 -- the high-water mark of the season -- was 3.49. The Orioles were 15 games above .500 and in first place by percentage points. Since then, the pitchers have given up an average of 4.63 earned runs, and the club is 12-16.

There are wilting offensive numbers to match, but nothing so dramatic. The team was scoring an average of nearly 4.9 runs and leaving little more than seven runners on base through June 12. The offense has averaged about 4.4 since and left an average of nearly nine runners on base.

Oates continues to preach calm, but the pitching situation obviously reached the crisis stage last week. Why else would the club go against its own better judgment and bring left-hander Arthur Rhodes to the major leagues 10 months earlier than originally planned?

Rhodes was supposed to stay with Triple-A Rochester for the entire 1992 season. That's what Oates wanted. He said he wouldn't gamble the club's long-term success for a short-term solution, but that's what ended up happening.

It was the only move the club could make. Oates wanted to bring Rhodes along more slowly, but he is the top pitching prospect in an organization that needed some pitching help. He provided it immediately with an impressive performance in his first start of 1992.

The Orioles had gotten through the first 2 1/2 months of the season on a handful of roster moves, but the past week has featured four pitching changes. Rhodes was added to the starting rotation. Left-hander Pat Clements was claimed off waivers and placed in the bullpen. Jose Mesa was traded to the Cleveland Indians, ending two years of waiting and wondering if he would develop into a consistent winner. And, yesterday, Bob Milacki was sent to Rochester and Richie Lewis called up.

"You've got to keep working during the course of the season to fill needs and address injuries," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said. "It's not a static picture. You've got to work toward the solutions to your problems. We're doing that. You find a guy on the waiver wire. You bring up an Arthur Rhodes ahead of schedule. It wasn't part of the game plan, but it was an adjustment that made sense."

The front office took some heat over the past couple of years for its inability to plug the holes in a disappointing team, but Lucchino and general manager Roland Hemond deserve credit for some moves that have worked out well this season.

The Orioles have had no reason to regret signing Sutcliffe to a one-year contract. The deal for Storm Davis also has helped, though Davis has been forced onto the disabled list with a groin injury. The trade that put Alan Mills in the bullpen just might be the steal of the season.

Clements could be a very important acquisition, providing more balance to a bullpen that has gotten by all year without an effective left-hander. He even could have a positive effect on struggling Mike Flanagan, who pitched very well last year when there was a second left-hander in the bullpen.

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