Is it streak of good fortune or are Orioles for real? Suddenly, chemistry is right for winning mix

June 13, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Sometime between their two-hour team meetin in Chicago and their 20-minute tag-team match at Camden Yards, the Orioles found their soul.

It is one of the great mysteries of sport, this thing called team chemistry, but it has developed just in time for the club to remain a credible challenger in the American League East. The Orioles are back in business with a 10-game winning streak that has lifted them back to respectability, which leaves only one question:

Is this the real thing, or just a fantasy?

During the course of a 162-game season, every dog will have its day . . . or week . . . or even month. The lightly regarded California Angels were in first place a week or so ago, but the law of averages was out there waiting for them. The expansion Colorado Rockies look like a latter-day version of the '62 Mets -- or a present-day version of the '93 Mets, for that matter -- but even they figure to have a good week or two.

The Orioles, however, have every reason to hope that it was the first seven weeks of the season, and not the last two, that were an aberration. They were expected to be among the top teams in the AL East, but a combination of bad luck and bad chemistry conspired to take them right to the bottom of the standings.

This was supposed to be the year that Glenn Davis resurrected his career and Cal Ripken bounced back from his worst offensive season. This was supposed to be the year that Brady Anderson took the next step on the road to superstardom. This was supposed to be the year, period.

Maybe it still is, but a lot has happened to keep the club from keeping pace with the surprising Detroit Tigers and the seemingly indestructible Toronto Blue Jays.

The Orioles averaged 3.9 runs through the first 59 games, not enough to sustain them through some early pitching problems. The offensive downturn intensified when injuries to Mike Devereaux and Harold Baines left a big hole in the heart of the lineup. Ripken and Anderson struggled. Davis was missing in action again.

So much went wrong so fast, perhaps it was inevitable that the Orioles would stage some kind of rally eventually, but there is reason to believe that this is not just some midseason supernova.

The past two weeks has not featured a Tigers-like offensive assault or an other-worldly string of pitching performances, but a combination of positive developments that has left the Orioles looking like a solid and workmanlike club.

The offense has averaged 6.0 runs (60 in 10 games) during the streak, which -- with Friday's 16-run deluge subtracted -- doesn't necessarily represent an offensive renaissance. The pitching staff has been impressive, but not unhittable. Opponents have averaged nearly three runs per game during the 10-game streak, which might have been enough to win four or five games with the Orioles earlier in the year.

"I think overall, we haven't at one time played on all cylinders," said manager Johnny Oates, "but I don't know if you want that. Right now, were getting a big hit from someone different every night. One night, it's Devereaux and Baines. The next night, it's [Chris] Hoiles and [David] Segui. You hope that tonight it's Cal and Brady, so they can't pitch around anybody."

Timing is everything. The Orioles couldn't buy a clutch hit in April. They got five two-out RBI singles in Wednesday's 7-4 victory over Oakland and three RBI singles in the ninth inning of yesterday's 5-1 win in Boston. They have scored a lot of big runs in the late innings, as evidenced by the five relief victories during the streak.

"The difference has been clutch hitting," Oates said. "We're swinging the bat at the right time and it has been somebody different each of the last eight or nine days."

But the events of the past two weeks spawn two divergent

theories on the club's future. In the best-case scenario, the Orioles are a team that has tapped very little of its offensive potential, so there should be plenty of excitement -- and a few more games like Friday's 16-4 victory -- ahead. In the worst-case scenario, the club has been doing it with mirrors, getting big performances from the likes of Mark McLemore, Jack Voigt and Paul Carey while the players needed to carry the club remain out of the loop. That can't go on.

There is room to wonder if the club is on the verge of an offensive turnaround. The Orioles entered the season with eight regulars who had the potential to hit 20 home runs, but only Leo Gomez and Hoiles are on pace to do so. If career averages mean anything, there are several players who can be expected to do some catching up.

Anderson probably won't match his amazing 1992 numbers, but he figures to improve on his .217 average. Ripken has made some changes in his mechanics and appears to be making headway. Devereaux and Baines can't make up for lost time, but they have given the club a big lift since they returned 2 1/2 weeks ago.

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