Nine games later, O's are contenders

KEN ROSENTHAL

June 12, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

BOSTON -- On June 1, the Boston Red Sox led the Orioles by seven games. Eleven days later, the Orioles have completed a remarkable 8 1/2 -game swing, surging 1 1/2 games ahead of the fading Red Sox and taking aim at the three teams ahead of them in the AL East.

See what wonders a nine-game winning streak can bring? True, the Orioles are catching Boston at the right time, just as they did Oakland and Seattle. But like any streak worth its merit, this thing is rapidly taking on a life of its own.

Last night, Mike Mussina struggled to complete six innings, but it hardly mattered. The Orioles produced their biggest offensive output in nearly four years, batting around in consecutive innings and pounding the beleaguered Red Sox, 16-4.

Six runs in the fourth.

Five in the fifth.

Not long ago, either was a good week.

Everything is going the Orioles' way now. They're already assured of a split of the four games at Fenway Park, and after that they visit sixth-place Milwaukee and seventh-place Cleveland. By then, they might need a few losses just for humility's sake.

All right, they're only .500, but this is getting silly. Cal Ripken hit a three-run homer last night, his first since the Jurassic Park Era (actually, April 28). Ripken also had a single and double, finishing with a season-high five RBI. No one would have guessed he entered the game batting .215.

You know the Orioles are rolling when Jupiter aligns with Mars and Ripken is removed from a game. It happened last night in the eighth inning. Rookie Damon Buford, batting for the first time since May 25, hit for Ripken. Naturally, he delivered a single -- the Orioles' first pinch hit of the season.

Hey, even Brady Anderson is coming out of it. Two days ago, Boston general manager Lou Gorman dismissed Anderson as a one-year wonder and scoffed at the notion of reacquiring him. Anderson responded with the game-winning hit Thursday night, and by hitting two doubles and reaching base four times last night.

Thanks for the pep talk, Lou.

Say hello to Frank Viola.

A month ago, an off-night by Mussina would have meant a five-game losing streak. Last night, Mussina was hit hard by the lowest-scoring team in the American League, and no one flinched. The Orioles picking up Mussina. What a concept.

Mussina (9-2) is on target to start the All-Star Game -- he will make five more starts before the break, and the game falls roughly on his day to pitch. Still, after exhaustive research, we've finally unearthed a negative Mussina stat: The Red Sox are batting .361 against him for his career.

Funny, that's the weird thing about this streak: The starting pitching hasn't been dominant. Even before all this started, the bullpen was the backbone of this team. Now that everything is falling into place, the relievers just keep rolling along.

The starters have averaged only six innings during the streak, and before last night, the Orioles' largest margin of victory was three runs. The relievers' 2.53 ERA is the lowest in the American League, and nearly two runs per game lower than the starters' (4.38).

It's not simply that closer Gregg Olson has earned a staggering six saves in this stretch, increasing his season total to 16, fourth in the American League. Catcher Chris Hoiles said he has never seen Jim Poole throw harder. Manager Johnny Oates said he has never seen Mark Williamson throw better.

And on and on.

The fact is, the Orioles' bullpen is one of the game's best-kept secrets. Last year, it posted a 3.30 ERA (second lowest in the AL) and allowed only 18 homers (fewest in the majors). Hoiles says flatly: "I don't think there's a better bullpen in baseball."

He might not be far off. The bullpen has become even more effective since evolving into a six-man unit this season. Poole and rookie Brad Pennington are sharing the left-handers' work, instead of a washed-up Mike Flanagan carrying the entire burden himself.

Finally, the bullpen is set up precisely the way Oates envisioned when he took over as manager in May 1991. The best part, of course, is that Olson has re-emerged as one of the game's top closers. When he's struggling, the whole thing unravels.

Olson was throwing only 85 mph when Oates demoted him April 23 for a three-week period, but now he's back to 90. Oates is delighted that he has thrown 20 or fewer pitches in his past five save chances, keeping the drama to a minimum.

Ripken's hitting, Anderson's reviving, Olson's throwing strikes.

What's next, a no-hitter by Ben McDonald?

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