Lineup shake-up: better, or not?

JOHN EISENBERG

August 22, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Well, Johnny Oates finally succumbed last night. All this talk-show heat and second-guessing finally got to the Orioles' manager. He switched his lineup to try to get Randy Milligan out of this gosh-darn slump everyone is talking about.

Just kidding, people, just kidding. Hey, lighten up already. We are not talking about anything important here, like family values.

We are talking about that vaguest, most inconclusive of baseball creatures: the lineup change, to which either nothing or everything can be attributed, depending on your point of view, sort of.

Starting to get the point?

In case you missed it, here is the hard news: Mike Devereaux moved from the second spot in the order to third, Randy Milligan moved from fifth to second and Cal Ripken moved from third to fifth.

It was not that big a deal and they will all probably be back in their old places inside a week, but given the screeching local response currently awarded anything regarding Ripken and his home run slump and his unsigned contract, it automatically becomes Topic A at Camden Yards.

Will Cal be upset about dropping in the order? Will he see easier pitches batting fifth? Will the change jump-start him? Will Devereaux provide more production from the third spot? Or is Devereaux's year just an unexplainable monster of the No. 2 spot? Will Brady Anderson get more chances to steal with the deliberate Milligan batting behind him? Will the No. 6 hitters take off with Ripken batting ahead of them?

Such lineup changes always open a box containing an infinite number of these well-maybes, coulda-wouldas and what-ifs. You can go around and around forever on these things, weighing the pros and cons. It makes for interesting conversation, particularly if you are a Rotisserie geek wearing the customary uniform of striped pants, checked shirt and very white socks.

At least this much was certain: Ripken was not upset. He said so.

"I'm not mad or anything," he said before the game.

"Well," said A's manager Tony La Russa, "it's not like they moved him to ninth or anything. Fifth is still a very important position."

Figuring out whether any of this really makes a difference is virtually impossible. And just remember that on any given night a lineup picked out of a hat by a monkey could beat the World Series champs.

Sure, there are times when a batter clearly benefits from a change.

"A couple of years ago Frank [Robinson] moved me to fifth or sixth, I don't remember," Ripken said, "and Milligan batted third and the offense got going. I hope the same thing happens."

A great example came in 1983, when Carlton Fisk was moved to second in the White Sox lineup and hit something like .750 the rest of the season. Who knew why? It just happened.

The manager who moved Fisk that year was La Russa.

"Sometimes a change of scenery [in the lineup] is good," he said.

Of course, for every circumstance such as those there are a dozen little changes that go unnoticed because they make no appreciable difference to anyone.

Oates made his move, it seems, primarily because it just seemed like a good time. Ripken and Milligan were in slumps and the Orioles had lost five of seven, batting just .224 in the process. The team was dragging, unable to gain ground on the flagging Blue Jays. Why not try something?

"You can do three things to a slumping hitter," La Russa said. "You can get them extra hitting [practice], you can sit them down or you can move them in the order. I have moved Jose [Canseco] to fifth [from third] a couple of times this year."

Of course, as noted, for every pro there is a con. Tampering with Devereaux when he is having a career year could be risky. Starting to get the point? You can go around and around forever.

Anderson and Devereaux combined to produce a run in the first inning last night for the third time in four games, the only difference this time being that there was an out (Milligan) between their at-bats. Now, is that genius or luck?

Devereaux drove in another run in the fifth -- after a Milligan walk and before a Ripken strikeout. Again, genius or luck?

In the end, the Orioles played their best game in more than a week, beating the A's, 4-2, to move within two games of the Jays. From the first pitch, the club seemed more alert, upbeat and energized that at any time in the last week.

Was it the new lineup? Who knows? Let's look at what happened. Anderson and Devereaux drove in three of the four runs. Milligan walked in the middle of a run-scoring rally. Ripken did not hit a home run. Truth be told, the offense looked an awful lot like the offense from the first 131 games of the season. Oh, well.

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