It's not a start, just a false start

JOHN EISENBERG

May 09, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- You win a game and hope it's the start of something big. That's the routine when you're picked to contend and instead you're sitting in last place as the season begins to crystallize.

"Maybe this is the one that will get you going," said a reporter to Johnny Oates after the Orioles' 6-3 win over the Blue Jays yesterday.

"Well," the Orioles manager said, "we've won 11 now this year and we're still waiting for that one that gets us going."

This wasn't it.

Sure, it was better than a third straight loss to the Jays. But it was nothing on which to build. Not with the clutch hits coming again from Damon Buford and Mark McLemore instead of the players who must produce, and aren't. And not with Rick Sutcliffe juggling 10 base runners in six innings, getting the win but offering only mild encouragement that he'll be up to shouldering last year's enormous load.

The pitching-poor Jays were reduced to starting a minor-league call-up named Doug Linton, who had been hit hard twice this year -- by Rochester. Hey, the Orioles should have won. That they had to sweat so hard only illustrates how far off track they are.

This is a team with a startling number of problems right now. Forget the injuries to Harold Baines and Mike Devereaux. Brady Anderson, Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis are still healthy, but they're not hitting. Sutcliffe, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes -- the last two in particular -- are having a terrible time. Gregg Olson has blown so many save chances that he lost his job.

McLemore, Buford, Sherman Obando and Fernando Valenzuela have been pleasant surprises, but they can only keep the listing team from completely tipping over. Only when most or all of those prominent sore spots begin to heal should there be any notion entertained about the club putting together a winning streak.

And we're talking about a whole lot of healing right there. Maybe more than can rightfully be expected.

In any case, the place to monitor is the middle of the batting order, where, if you recall, the Orioles did much to lose a division title a year ago. It's back to the same old story with Baines now on the disabled list. The Orioles are getting all of their offense from the top and bottom of the order. When they get any offense at all, that is.

Davis was 0-for-4 yesterday, pushing him to 1-for-21. Ripken got two hits, including an RBI double, but he's still a lame 18-for-99 since the second week of the season. McLemore has the most RBI on the team, which is great news for him but terrible news for the Orioles, who are going nowhere fast unless Davis and particularly Ripken get going.

Both have taken extra batting practice this weekend and hit balls hard, prompting Oates to say he sees reason to hope. But Davis still looks miserable -- he "badly" needs some success, Oates said -- and the bottom line is that the 3-4-5 spots in the order hit just .231 yesterday. In that regard, the win promised nothing better for the future than a loss.

"We desperately need an impact bat in there," Oates said.

The tenor of Sutcliffe's performance was only slightly better. It was an improvement over his last two outings, in which he didn't make it through the fifth inning, but he almost didn't make it yesterday, either. He was down 1-0 and walked the bases loaded in the third, putting himself on the verge of a knockout. Getting Joe Carter to hit into a double-play probably saved him from an ugly end.

The Orioles scored five runs in the fifth -- leaving the bases loaded -- and Sutcliffe managed to muddle through to the seventh. Todd Frohwirth finished brilliantly, with three hitless innings.

The Orioles had their first win of the season against a division opponent, and also -- surprise, surprise -- their sixth win in the last 10 games.

"Things are better now than they were," Oates said. "We went through that really bad stretch, in the 10 games before these last 10, where we did everything wrong. Then we had our [second team] meeting in Chicago. It's been better since then. We're playing sounder baseball."

But there's still so much wrong. Before yesterday's game, the club was third in the league in runners left on base and next-to-last in homers. McDonald, who is exasperating the coaching staff, was in the bullpen with Dick Bosman for a long lesson about mechanics and maturity.

Things seemed a little better after the win, but only in a temporary way. It was just too hard to envision a measurable turnaround with Arthur Rhodes scheduled to go today. Whew. Who has the guts to watch?

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