Lefferts' best turns to O's worst Brewers' onslaught buries newcomer's strong start

September 21, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

MILWAUKEE -- For Craig Lefferts, the best thing about his best start for the Orioles was that he didn't have to watch the bottom of the sixth inning here yesterday in Milwaukee's 9-3 devastation of the Orioles.

The worst was that he didn't take advantage of the opportunity.

"I saw it," said Lefferts, who had been removed from the game after giving up a single to Kevin Seitzer and a double to Paul Molitor, only the third and fourth hits he allowed.

"If you look at Craig's track record, he hadn't gone past six innings very often," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "We had somebody [Storm Davis] ready and with all of those right-handers coming up, we weren't going to take any chances."

Lefferts wouldn't quarrel with the move, though he probably wishes now he had had a chance to escape himself. "That's a decision Johnny has to make," he said. "It just didn't work out."

Instead of proceeding directly to the clubhouse to shower and change clothes after he was removed, which is the usual procedure, Lefferts chose to wait out the inning in the dugout. It was a long wait, and the fact that the newly acquired left-hander didn't leave with a completely empty feeling is a tribute to his optimistic nature.

After he left, Lefferts watched the Milwaukee Brewers score eight runs in the sixth inning en route to a win that left the Orioles teetering on the brink of elimination.

"It wasn't meant to be," Lefferts said of his third unsuccessful attempt to claim his first American League victory. "We have to put this one behind us and come back with enthusiasm and win an even bigger game tomorrow [tonight] -- and we will."

Lefferts could be forgiven if he's having a little trouble understanding what's been going on with the Orioles lately. It was only a little more than two weeks ago -- shortly after he joined the team -- that they were a half-game out of first place and on a roll. Today, that must seem like months ago.

With 14 games to play, the Orioles are 5 1/2 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays and, even more important, 1 1/2 games behind the Brewers, who have supplanted them in second place. The three games in Baltimore against the division leaders, starting tomorrow night, suddenly loom as nothing more than window dressing for a season that started with hope, nurtured promise and is now on the brink of disappointment.

All of those factors no doubt influenced Oates to hold a brief clubhouse meeting after yesterday's loss. This was not a rag session. Oates was not interested in dwelling on mistakes or lost opportunities.

Instead, the meeting was intended to serve as a reminder. "We'll keep that in the clubhouse," was Oates' response, when asked what he had to say after the game. But he left no doubt that his message concerned the immediate future, rather than the immediate past.

"There is no concession in here," Oates said after what might have been the most discouraging loss of the season. "Up until the last four innings [of yesterday's game] I have no complaints with this club.

"We've gotten to the point where we can see a lot of improvement. We have come a long way, and I don't want [this series and the rest of the season] to erase what we have accomplished.

"This [yesterday's game] is magnified mainly because of where we are in the season, and our position in the standings. We can't quit now. We still have to keep pushing to have a good finish."

With Toronto's magic number against the Orioles reduced to eight (nine for the Brewers), Oates wouldn't discuss either the possibilities, or the realities, of his team's situation. "I was never very good at math," he said.

The inevitability of the Orioles' position, however, is becoming clearer by the day. Not only are they faced with the improbability of having to make up 5 1/2 games in less than two weeks, they now have the added obstacle of another team (the Brewers) fitting in the equation.

Lefferts tried to put the situation in perspective when he talked about the nightmarish sixth inning. "It's a hard thing to go through," said the veteran left-hander. "But you have to put it behind you and come back.

"We have a good team that believes in itself," said Lefferts. "There's still a pennant race and we're still in it."

That notion is a tough sell for the Orioles right now, and it was never more evident than yesterday. For the first time in more than two weeks they scored more than two runs in an inning and had a three-run lead.

But when the Brewers started slapping the ball and running the bases in the sixth inning the Orioles' three runs were rendered meaningless.

Their prevent defense consisted of relief pitching and defense. Both came up short, which also can be said about the season.

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