Orioles' supporting cast assumes lead role in divisional drama Club reaches deep to stay in chase

August 15, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The events of the past few days made it more apparent than ever. The Orioles -- unlike the team they have been chasing for the past five years -- cannot fall back on the depth of their talent. It is the talent of their depth that will decide whether they prevail in the American League East this year.

Case in point: Catcher Jeff Tackett's relief appearance during Wednesday night's blowout loss to the Detroit Tigers.

It may have looked like a meaningless stunt, but it could also be viewed on a much higher level -- as an illustration of the way all the individual pieces must work together for the greater benefit of the whole.

Sound a little esoteric? Maybe it is, but Tackett's performance allowed manager Johnny Oates to save one relief pitcher for the afternoon game Thursday. His temporary transition from catcher pitcher briefly gave the Orioles the equivalent of an extra player in a season when they have needed help from every corner of the roster to keep pace with the talent-rich Toronto Blue Jays.

There are other teams in the race, of course, but the Blue Jays have become the standard by which to measure success in the AL East. The trouble is, the makeup of the Orioles' roster makes it difficult to draw a meaningful comparison.

The Blue Jays field a veritable All-Star lineup in a league in which parity has become the watchword of the 1990s. The talent of the Orioles is spread more thinly throughout the roster, so the contribution of the role players is far more important to the overall success of the club.

"It's seldom that a team can go through 162 games on the strength of five or six players doing everything all the time," said Oates. "You have to get production from everyone to keep you in the race."

That isn't necessarily true for the Blue Jays, who seem to win with the same horses every night, but the Orioles have gone to the end of the roster to keep pace.

Rookie Jeffrey Hammonds came up midway through the season to bat .323 and contribute 19 RBI in 29 games before a neck injury forced him out of action. Utility man Jack Voigt picked up from there and has raised his average to .320. Sherman Obando is hitting .308 in a limited role.

During the eight-game winning streak that ended Tuesday, there were outcome-affecting performances from two players (Mark Parent and Arthur Rhodes) who weren't with the team two weeks ago. The Orioles also got significant contributions from Voigt, who never figured to be here this long, and Tim Hulett, who didn't figure to be starting at third base, much less leading the team in hitting.

The Orioles have been competitive because they have been able to go beyond the starting lineup and -- for that matter -- beyond the 25-man roster to get the production they need to keep up in a tight, four-way race. The roster shuffling continued as the pitching staff sagged in Detroit, focusing on the importance of organizational depth over front-line talent.

Left-hander Brad Pennington faltered, so the club recalled right-hander Anthony Telford from Rochester, though he was unimpressive in his first appearance. Hammonds had to go on the disabled list, so Damon Buford returned after a short stay in the minor leagues. Closer Gregg Olson and catcher Chris Hoiles were placed on the disabled list Friday, and pitchers Mike Oquist

and John O'Donoghue were called up from Rochester.

There was no panic in Detroit, but it had become evident by Friday that the club's minor-league depth was wearing thin. This is no time for player development, anyway.

The Orioles knew there might be a talent gap when the season began, and it appeared to widen when the Blue Jays added flashy leadoff man Rickey Henderson to a star-studded lineup, but the Orioles have survived this long because of their ability to adapt to a changing environment. That ability has been most evident on the bench.

Tackett's pitching performance is an extreme illustration, to be sure, but there are plenty of more reasonable examples. Mark McLemore opened the season as a utility man, but has taken over right field. Hulett has done the same at third. Voigt came up as a reserve outfielder, but also has done a solid job filling in at third base and first as well as making a surprisingly solid contribution at the plate.

Oates, who spent much of his career as a part-time player, speaks of all this with great pride.

"I'm proud of this whole ballclub, not just them," he said. "You look at your role players, and two of them have become everyday players. The two utility infielders are playing every day and doing very well. There may be some areas where we don't match up talent-wise, but we match up effort-wise with anyone in the

league."

It isn't easy being on the fringe. Tackett has played so sparingly that it has been impossible to put up any representative numbers this year. but he and Parent played so well in place of Hoiles that the Orioles went undefeated in the first eight games of his absence.

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