Orioles' home plate is loaded with main courses AL East feast brings 3 teams above them here for showdown

June 22, 1993|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

Having survived their first major road test of the year, the Orioles will spend the next nine days in a strange setting -- at home.

And they will spend that time playing the three teams most likely to determine if their recent run of success is the real thing. Starting tonight, the Orioles play three games each against the teams directly ahead of them in the standings -- the division-leading Detroit Tigers, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees.

"It [the homestand] is important; there's no doubt about that," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates. "And the team we're playing first is as hot as a firecracker."

Or, at the very least, as hot as the Orioles have been the past three weeks. And, just as the Orioles will find a lot out about themselves in the next nine days, the Tigers also are embarking on a difficult part of their schedule.

Of their next 24 games, the Tigers will play 20 on the road -- a schedule almost identical to the one the Orioles just completed. They went 18-8 in a stretch with 20 of 26 away from home.

The Orioles have played the most road games (40) and the fewest home games (28) in the American League. But, in the never-ending story of "As the Schedule Turns," the Orioles are in a position to make a move at home.

They will play 20 of their next 27 games, and 30 of 43 through Aug. 8, in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"The time is right," said veteran right-hander Rick Sutcliffe, who will face the Tigers tomorrow night. "And enough good things are happeningthat maybe we can get something going."

Staying focused on each series, as they have done for the past six, is the primary goal of Oates. "We can't get wrapped up in the whole picture," he said. "We've got to continue to look at each series.

"That's what got us to this point -- concentrating on winning each series," said Oates. "Right now, all of our attention has to be on the Tigers." Not that that's a problem. The Tigers have attracted the attention of the entire American League as they've slugged their way to the division lead.

The Orioles lost two of three to the Tigers in Detroit last month, but were competitive throughout the series, losing 4-3 and 5-3 before winning, 3-2, behind Mike Mussina. The Orioles will have to continue playing relatively low-scoring games to win this series, because the Tigers don't lose many homer-hitting

contests.

To do that, the Orioles' pitching staff has to stay on track. On the just-completed 10-game road trip (7-3), the Orioles posted a 3.10 ERA.

Much of the recent success has to be attributed to a bullpen that has been just short of brilliant. In the past 19 games (15-4), the relievers have a 1.50 ERA while going 5-0 with 10 saves. Overall, the Orioles' bullpen has a 2.38 ERA, the lowest in the American League.

"I think our bullpen is the best in the league," said Oates. "From top to bottom, all six of them have been outstanding.

"Every day that I come to the park, Mark Williamson and Alan Mills give me a good feeling. I know if something goes wrong [for the starter], I've got somebody who can give me four or five innings and give us a chance to get back in the game.

"And I have complete confidence that Brad Pennington and Gregg Olson can come into any game late and blow hitters away. The other two guys, Todd Frohwirth and Jim Poole, I like to match up against right-handed [Frohwirth] or left-handed [Poole] hitters as much as possible.

"Both of them have made great strides, and either one can give you three or four innings if necessary," said Oates.

Frohwirth has not allowed a run in his past four games, Poole hasgiven up one in his past nine and Mills three in his past five (13 1/3 innings). Williamson has a 2.84 ERA in 20 games, and Pennington and Olson have been outstanding in the late innings.

Pennington has three wins and two saves in his past seven games and, after an unsettling start, Olson has re-emerged as one of the game's premier closers. Olson has not been scored on in his past 10 games, has converted nine straight save opportunities (19 total) and has reduced his overall ERA to 1.50.

With the pitchers on a roll, one thing hasn't changed. The emphasis is still on scoring enough runs.

"Right now, the way we're pitching, if we get five or six runs, we're going to win some games," said Oates.

And if the Orioles are going to make a move in the division race, right now would be a good time to start doing just that.

ORIOLES TONIGHT

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Time: 7:35

Tigers starter: Bill Gullickson (4-3, 4.44)

Orioles starter: Mike Mussina (9-3, 3.46)

TV: HTS

Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)

pTC Tickets: Fewer than 1,000 remain, not including 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.

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