Orioles deliver right pitch, wind up in pennant race

September 04, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The whole thing seemed to be coming apart just a week or so ago. The Orioles pitching staff, for all of its youth and promise, was looking a little bit tired, and the club's pennant drive looked as if it was ready to run aground at the drop of a bat.

The late-season West Coast swing has damaged such dreams before, so the Orioles were faced with a simple proposition: start winning or stop worrying about the American League East title.

Manager Johnny Oates might not agree that it was a do-or-die situation, but he cannot argue that the club's resurgence came at the right time. The Orioles enter tonight's series opener against the California Angels already guaranteed a winning trip. They have won five in a row and seven of their past eight, dating to the last two games of a home series against the Angels. They are just a half-game behind the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays.

"Since I've been with the Orioles, we've never played well in Seattle, and Oakland has played us tougher than anyone with the possible exception of Milwaukee," Oates said. "We feel great about being 5-1 at this point in the trip, but we still need to push a little bit harder."

The pitching staff has done an about-face, giving up just two runs during the five-game winning streak (0.39 ERA).

The Orioles came within one out of pitching four consecutive shutouts. They went head-to-head against the Oakland Athletics the team with the best major-league record and the team they figure to face if they make the playoffs -- and pulled off a three-game sweep.

Desperate for pitching help, the Orioles made an 11th-hour deal for left-hander Craig Lefferts on Monday, but he hasn't even had a chance to contribute yet. Arthur Rhodes, who appeared to be (( on the way out of the rotation after four consecutive losses, rebounded with an outstanding performance against the Seattle Mariners to start the shutout string. Bob Milacki, whose career appeared to be on the rocks when he was sent to the minor leagues in July, returned to carry a shutout bid into the ninth inning on Tuesday night.

"Two weeks ago, it [the pitching staff] wasn't good enough to win," Oates said.

"Now, things are going good. The idea was to add Lefferts -- to add a veteran pitcher who could take some of the pressure off the kids. The kids have responded well."

So well that Oates had a tough decision to make when he filled the final spot in the rotation for the series against the Angels. Not surprisingly, he chose Lefferts, but that he even considered any other possibilities had to be an encouraging sign.

"We're in a good situation right now," said Rick Sutcliffe, who will start tonight's series opener against Angels left-hander Mark Langston. "We have some depth. Milacki just pitched a great game. Lefferts is a 13-game winner. That's a nice package to pick up. It gives us some depth, and it gives Johnny some options."

Rhodes is scheduled to pitch Tuesday night against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards. Milacki will have to wait for a chance to re-enter the rotation, but he will do so with his confidence reinforced.

"Hitting is contagious, and so is pitching," said right-hander Ben McDonald, who gave up two hits over six innings in the series finale in Oakland.

"We're in a good little groove right now. Things seem to be falling in place for us."

McDonald had raised concern with three straight losses and his continued vulnerability to the long ball. He still leads the major leagues with 30 home runs allowed -- five shy of a club record.

Right-hander Mike Mussina, the most consistent starter in the rotation, also had been showing signs of fatigue, but bounced back to pitch eight shutout innings on Monday night.

"He hasn't been as consistent lately," Oates said, "but you have to look at the overall. He's 13-5 with a sub-3.00 ERA. You can't complain about that."

The club also has gotten a series of outstanding performances from the bullpen. Alan Mills pitched four hitless innings to record his ninth victory on Wednesday and drop his ERA as a reliever to 1.87. Todd Frohwirth has given up two runs in his past 15 appearances. Stopper Gregg Olson has emerged from a month-long funk to retire 16 of his past 17 batters.

The Orioles don't figure to keep pitching the way they have the past five games, but the team has gotten a tremendous boost. Oates continues to ask for calm, but the chemistry of the division race appears to have changed. The Orioles -- almost entirely on the strength of their pitching -- have put the Blue Jays on the defensive.

"We've been looking for someone other than Sutcliffe to have a good outing for a month," Oates said. "But you don't want to get too excited about a streak like that. You know that you're not going to give up two runs in five games very often, just like you're not going to have a Rick Sutcliffe go a whole month without winning very often."

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