Hits, not punches, get Orioles going

JOHN EISENBERG

June 09, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

In understanding why the Orioles suddenly are hot, it's important to credit the right hits.

Not the hits that landed on Mariners jaws Sunday.

The hits landing in the seats. The hits coming with runners in scoring position.

Those hits, absent until the last fortnight, are the seed of the Orioles' awakening, which stands at six straight wins and 10 in 15 games after last night's 6-4 win over the A's.

Crediting Sunday's brawl as the serum for delivering life to the club is simply inaccurate. It makes sense as a cheap piece of sophomore psychology, but the fact is the Orioles were on their way to their eighth win in 13 games when the fight broke out. They had stirred to life long before the first punch.

They haven't undergone some miracle transformation. They're just hitting better.

If they do proceed to run off more wins, it won't be because of some hard lesson about brotherhood and teamwork learned in mid-battle. Give me a break. This isn't the movies. If fights made a difference, teams would fight every night. And the Mariners wouldn't have lost Monday night.

Maybe it's true that trading punches made the players feel better about themselves for a day, but it's a temporary high, false currency in a long-haul game. The next ugly loss, the next blown save, ends any mention of it.

Intangibles such as toughness and team spirit are totally overrated in baseball. You just can't exist on a jut-jawed high. It isn't a game of emotion. It's a reflexive game requiring calm and concentration. You hit .150 when you get excited.

And in any case, who says it's good that teammates get along? The Fingers-Rudi-Reggie A's feuded constantly and won three straight World Series titles. The Reggie-Billy Yankees also were feuders, and they won two straight. The bottom line is it doesn't matter whether you love your brother. What matters is how you hit. How you pitch. Whether you perform.

What ailed the Orioles until now was a lack of performance, not intangibles. Far too much discussion has pinpointed the lack of leadership, fight and dugout rah-rah. That was maybe 1 percent of the problem. The other 99 percent was poor clutch hitting and inconsistent pitching. Inability to perform the crafts of the game. Bad baseball.

By the same token, continuing to hit as they have, not uncovering some sense of spirit and unity, is what would draw the Orioles back into contention.

If they do continue to run hot -- and it won't last too long unless Brady Anderson and Cal Ripken start hitting, too -- the fight will get a lot of play as the pivotal moment. That's inevitable. But two other moments were the pivotal ones.

The first was the return of Mike Devereaux and Harold Baines 13 days ago, from which moment, not coincidentally, the club compiled an 8-4 record. Devo had the game-winning hit that first night back, and the two players have carried the club ever since.

During their absence, manager Johnny Oates wrote some of the worst lineups seen in some time. Remember Sherman Obando batting cleanup? That was a desperate attempt to find $l production in the middle of the order, the lack of which has been the fundamental problem all along.

The long-awaited awakening of that middle, in the form of Baines and Devereaux, is the fundamental explanation for what has gone right.

The second critical moment was Friday night's win over the Mariners, not Sunday afternoon's. The Orioles trailed all night, then stole a win with two runs in the ninth and Jack Voigt's two-out, game-winning single in the 10th.

It was huge, an energizing win that erased a lot of self-doubt. The Orioles had won one game and lost a half-dozen in such fashion, creating the impression that they weren't clutch. The evidence against them was strong. Last in the league in runs, yet among the leaders in runners left on base, they had an obvious shortcoming.

A team can parlay a late, dramatic win into a winning streak, but the Orioles were in no position to start winning consistently when they rallied to beat the Blue Jays in the ninth inning in Toronto last month. They had that hole in the middle of the order. But after Voigt's hit Friday night, they were ready. Why? They had substance, not a hole, in the middle of their order.

You know the rest. Devereaux hit a decisive three-run homer the next night. Baines homered in each of the next two games after that. Last night, Chris Hoiles and David Segui hit back-to-back homers against the A's. Power hitting, not punching power, has enlivened the Orioles.

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