Oates tinkers, toys, then tries Mercedes

JOHN EISENBERG

September 17, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Long about the fourth inning, it became apparent that Mike Mussina had his A material working last night at Camden Yards. The Orioles would not need many runs to win.

Like, maybe one.

Please feel free to insert your own joke here.

No, as you may have heard, the Orioles have not been Bash Brothers lately. Bashful Brothers would be a more appropriate description. Or just Bashed, brother. Anyway, they weren't hitting worth a splinter. You knew it was getting rough when manager Johnny Oates went fishing for salvation last night with a September call-up hitting .087.

Remember Luis Mercedes? Yeah, right, he was the one who was going to become the leadoff hitter after Brady Anderson flopped back in April. Talk about forgotten.

Anyway, there he was in the lineup last night right behind Brady, and there was Oates on the field during batting practice, explaining.

"Just looking for a little offense," he said.

No one asked the manager to define his terms, but there was no doubt that by "little" he meant at least more than two runs, the number on which the Orioles were stuck.

He wound up getting three runs against the Royals, which would still rate as "little" offense in most clubhouses, but the Orioles certainly were not complaining, not on a night when they crept another game closer to the Blue Jays. But let's not get ahead of the story.

Oates had confessed after Tuesday night's win that he had no idea what to do next with his impotent lineup. He wound up posing this tinker in his flagging order: Randy Milligan from second to sixth, Leo Gomez from sixth to eighth, and Mercedes from the end of the bench to second.

Why? Why not? In their previous nine games, the Orioles had been outscored 44-18. Bashed, brother.

"What can a manager do?" Oates said. "Just try things."

Now, to be honest, Mercedes was not necessarily the desperate gamble he appeared to be. He hit a league-leading .334 at Rochester a year ago, then came back at .314 this year. His bat was so potent that the Orioles felt compelled to find a place for him on the roster coming out of spring training, even though his defense and base running were not ready for prime time.

Where he fits into the blueprint after this season, if he fits at all, is very much in question. But there is no doubt that he can hit.

Not that you could tell from his first at-bat last night. He swung at the second pitch and bounced to the first baseman on one hop. Ditto his second at-bat: second pitch, easy grounder to the shortstop.

Of course, so it was going for the rest of the lineup against someone named Chris Haney -- yes, Mr. Haney himself -- who was throwing all this off-speed stuff and making the Orioles look extremely bad.

As the game sailed scoreless through the third, fourth, fifth and ,, into the sixth, it appeared that, even on a night when Mussina was allowing them a huge margin of error, they were not up to the task.

Anyway, there was Mercedes at bat to start the sixth, and suddenly there was the unfamiliar sight of a ball rolling down the left-field line. Yes, in fair territory, of all places. A hit.

Mercedes wound up at second, and advanced to third when Mike Devereaux singled. Glenn Davis hit a drive to center that the Royals' Kevin Koslofski caught, but Mercedes tagged up and scored.

He jumped to his feet and raised his arms in triumph after sliding, as if the Orioles had just won the pennant. Not that you could blame him. His run was doing a very fair impersonation of the winning run.

The Orioles wound up scoring another run that inning, yeah, really blowing it out. The second scored on a ball that traveled 70 feet. What, you're going to complain? It was a big inning, OK? Real big.

Anyway, Davis hit a homer in the eighth and the Orioles wound up winning really big, 3-0. Mussina, a freshman in a pennant race, threw a four-hitter. The Royals were overmatched. So, with the Indians' winning in Toronto, the lead is down to three games.

What the Orioles really need is to get close enough so that they don't have to sweep the Jays in their three-game series next week at Camden Yards. It will mean winning in Milwaukee this weekend, and that will not be easy, not with the Orioles' bats still so still.

But hey, Cal Ripken is officially hot -- three hits again last night -- and Davis has hit a couple of big balls the past two nights, and there is always Devereaux. And for one night at least, there was Mercedes.

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