Orioles show uncanny ability to stay in race, but how long can it really last?

JOHN EISENBERG

July 26, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Rangers were up eight by the middle of the sixth inning yesterday, enough cushion even for their famously collapsible bullpen -- barely enough, but enough. So, once again, a big crowd went home with the sole satisfaction of knowing that the Blue Jays had lost. But how much longer can this go on?

Let's face it: If contenders were cars, the Orioles would have loose bolts, squeaky hinges, a sizable oil leak and all sorts of the ominous rattles that usually precede a thousand-dollar trip to the mechanic.

The starting pitching is in tatters. The heart of the batting order is not delivering. Gregg Olson has blown four of his past eight save chances. Even the fielding got sloppy this week.

The Orioles are at .500 since the middle of May, and a dull .447 since the middle of June. They are still somehow within four games of the Jays, but understanding that is like reading a mystery novel with several essential clues removed. It doesn't really make sense.

To be just four out almost 100 games into the season, a team should not be slouching quite this fiercely for this long. How are the Orioles getting away with it? You could blame some of it on the AL Least, but not all of it: Yes, the Jays have lost five of seven to the Athletics lately, but they still are on a pace to win 95 games.

No, the Orioles' strange circumstances are not that far removed from one of those National Enquirer "miracle" headlines: "Mystery Contender Loses Hitting and Pitching -- And Still Contends! See Exclusive Photos!"

That is a small exaggeration, of course. The club has not lost all of its hitting and pitching. But enough integral parts of the "contender" car are going clank right now that you can't help wondering how it is still running. Or how much longer until it sputters to a stop.

Rick Sutcliffe got knocked around again yesterday. The club's Opening Day starter is 1-6 in his past nine starts, with an ERA approaching 5.00. Manager Johnny Oates insisted yesterday that he is "not worried one bit," but he may be the only one.

Sutcliffe and Ben McDonald have won just three of their past 19 starts, with a combined 5.29 ERA. And remember, that's the top of the rotation, two of the three supposed cornerstones, pitchers for whom there are no alternatives, as there were for Jose Mesa and Bob Milacki.

Maybe it is reassuring that the club is still just four out despite these problems, but, at the risk of stating the obvious, the season is going nowhere without a more effective Sutcliffe and McDonald. Twenty-three-year-old Mike Mussina and 22-year-old Arthur Rhodes offer a promising future, but don't ask them to lead a team to a division title right now.

It isn't just the pitching, either. The Orioles are hanging on with a hole in the middle of their lineup, and you can only wonder how much longer that will last. Cal Ripken and Randy Milligan, the No. 3 and No. 5

hitters, are in a combined .166 slump dating to last month, with just 30 RBI in the past 38 games.

The Orioles have somehow managed because Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux have carried an enormous load at the top of the order, Leo Gomez has led a surprising contribution at the bottom, and the club has a seemingly innate ability to get enough big hits to win enough games to hang around.

But this is madness. For the season, the Nos. 7-8-9 hitters have eight more RBI than Nos. 3-4-5. Has a team ever won a pennant with everyone else holding up the load that the big bats can't carry? "We can keep it up as long as the others are contributing," Oates said, but as a baseball man he knows all too well that the odds are long.

Very long.

If the Orioles are lucky, they are just experiencing the dog days of the long season, and soon will turn matters around and make things interesting. If they aren't so lucky and these are problems they're stuck with for the rest of the season, things are not going to get much better.

It doesn't matter if they trade for another pitcher or hitter -- that won't make the difference, not if the members of the team's basic framework don't begin playing better. Sutcliffe. McDonald. Milligan. Ripken.

"I know one thing -- we're not going to win the pennant playing .500 baseball like we have for a long time now," Oates said. "It's helped us that Toronto just had that one [nine-game] winning streak and otherwise hasn't pulled away from everyone.

"But .500 baseball just doesn't win pennants. What we need to do is go on a streak here soon. Like maybe win seven of 10, then come right back around and win seven of 10 again. Something like that needs to happen."

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