Mound of differences should save Orioles from 1990-style collapse, Oates says

WHAT NOW?

April 02, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The Orioles know what can happen when expectations get out of control. The positive energy that flowed out of their "Why Not?" season of 1989 turned the following spring into an exercise in false optimism and set the organization up for a major disappointment.

Could it happen again?

The upbeat 1992 season bore some similarities to the tremendous turnaround of '89, but manager Johnny Oates would prefer to dwell on the differences as his club prepares to make another run at the American League East title.

"There's one big difference," he said. "It's called pitching. That's the only difference this club needs. We had no pitching in either '90 or '91 -- not enough to win. We had some, but we didn't have enough."

The Orioles thought they had enough at the time. The club did little to improve itself after the 1989 season. The front office went into 1990 with the assumption that 18-game winner Jeff Ballard was for real and Rookie of the Year candidate Bob Milacki would improve on his 14-victory season. Three years later, neither pitcher is in the organization.

The team goes into 1993 with similar assumptions about Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald. Those assumptions appear to be more legitimate, but the comparison is not entirely unwarranted. Ballard and Milacki combined to go 32-20 with a 3.60 ERA in 1989. Mussina and McDonald combined to go 31-18 with a 3.36 ERA last year.

Of course, Ballard had elbow surgery twice during the off-season that preceded the 1990 collapse, and Milacki was limited to 135 innings by shoulder soreness.

This year's club enters the season with far more promise and far more depth. This year, it doesn't stop with two young pitchers. Mussina and McDonald have been joined by promising left-hander Arthur Rhodes, and the Orioles have brought back 36-year-old Rick Sutcliffe to provide more of the leadership that made him such an important factor in last year's turnaround.

If that wasn't enough, the team acquired veterans Harold Baines and Harold Reynolds to shore up the offense, but Oates still feels that the difference between this year and 1990 lies in the overall quality of the pitching.

"We had guys that could hit," he said. "The reason we have a chance to win it this year is because we can get people out. In '90, we couldn't do that enough, and in '91, it seemed like we were down by four runs before we started."

The pitching situation had deteriorated so much by mid-1991 that the Orioles overhauled the starting rotation almost entirely. Ballard, Jeff Robinson and reliever Paul Kilgus were sent to the minor leagues on July 30 of that year, and the future was turned over to the young pitchers who now make up the nucleus of the staff.

"It's actually a much younger club now," Oates said. "Look at the pitchers who could make our team. Alan Mills doesn't have one full year in the major leagues. Arthur Rhodes hasn't pitched a full year. Jim Poole barely has a year in. Mike Mussina has just one year. Ben didn't pitch a full season until last year. I can't really tell you that this club is better than the 1990 club, but it has a chance to be."

Oates is being far too modest. The 1993 team is far more talented than the club that went 76-85 under Frank Robinson in 1990. The emergence of Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux gives this team far more offensive potential. The arrival of Glenn Davis in '91 didn't have much of an impact, but he could be a wild card in this year's division drive. Baines and Reynolds only make the situation look more promising.

In the clubhouse, the Orioles seem to feel the difference. The chemistry was good last year. The confidence level appears to be even higher this spring. True enough, the club entered the 1990 season with a lot of bravado, but it was not based in reality.

"In '89, we were a real young bunch of people who over-achieved," said shortstop Cal Ripken. "Everything went right. Everyone played well. Last year, we won a lot of ballgames not because we over-achieved, but because we had real good pitching. This year, we have the benefit of Mike Mussina coming off a full year. Rick Sutcliffe is back to do his thing. Ben McDonald is coming off his first full season. We've got every reason to believe we can compete."

Ripken is a reason in himself. He is coming off a difficult season that was marred by a string of nagging injuries. His offensive numbers were the worst of his career. But he is healthy again, and he has swung the bat well all spring. If he can bounce back and Davis can be productive, the Orioles will not need Devereaux and Anderson to duplicate their career-year performances of 1992 to be a division contender.

The addition of Baines should help everyone at the heart of the lineup. The Orioles needed to balance the batting order with run production from the left side of the plate.

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