O's pennant drive at crossroads Rash of injuries adds to obstacles in AL East

August 22, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The Orioles have slipped before. They opened the season in a slump that almost took them out of contention in April. . . . then recovered. They went from first place to five games out in late July. . . . then bounced back to close within a half-game of the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays.

Can they do it again?

The eight-game losing streak that ended on Wednesday left the Orioles on the verge of falling out of contention in the crowded American League East race. They have come back before, but this time there is plenty of room to wonder if they have what it takes to get back to the top of the standings.

It takes talent, but the loss of several pivotal players over the past few weeks has left the Orioles undermanned at a critical juncture. Right-hander Mike Mussina just returned to the starting rotation after more than a month on the sidelines, but ace closer Gregg Olson is out with a ligament strain in

his elbow, catcher Chris Hoiles is on the disabled list with a muscle strain in his lower back, third baseman Leo Gomez is out indefinitely with a wrist injury and rookie sensation Jeffrey Hammonds is down with a disk problem in his neck.

Is it reasonable to expect that the Orioles will be able to compete for the division title without a closer, a No. 1 catcher, a starting third baseman and one of the top prospects in the major leagues?

"No," assistant general manager Frank Robinson said, "but that is not a knock on the guys who are now playing for the guys who are injured. We were thin as far as front-line players to begin with, and then we lost Olson, Mussina, Hoiles and Hammonds. That's going to really affect your ballclub."

The first-place Blue Jays, meanwhile, continue to field the most talented offensive lineup in baseball and the New York Yankees, tied with Toronto, might have the best combination of offense and pitching.

"Of the four [top] teams in the division, we are the least likely to be able to overcome those types of injuries," Robinson said. "You can't go out and replace those guys and you can't expect the system to replace them either. You just have to hope you can keep the ship afloat long enough for them to comeback."

That won't be easy, but the return of Mussina on Friday night gave the Orioles an immediate lift. He pitched six strong innings in the opener of a four-game series against the Texas Rangers and the Orioles won their second game in a row. But even if he answered an important question about his physical condition, he could not answer on behalf of the entire team.

Mound of frustration

Manager Johnny Oates tried to answer that on Friday, when he was asked whether the Orioles still have enough talent to win the division.

"If people leave us alone and let us play," Oates said, "but the people who are supposed to be behind us aren't there when we need them the most. When we need the support the most, we get it the least. I guess that's life."

Actually, that's just Oates blowing off steam. The Orioles have outstanding fan support and they have not been the victim of tremendous media criticism in Baltimore. The problem is entirely personnel-related, but no manager is going to admit that his team is not good enough to contend until it is entirely out of contention.

It has been a frustrating month for Oates, who had directed a team of moderate talent to the front of the division race in late July. The Orioles were there for only one day, but it was enough to show the resilience of a team that was close to being written off after a 5-13 start.

Looking on the bright side

Give him credit for one thing. Even in the worst of times, Oates has tried to find something positive to build on. He has insisted from his first day as manager that he is most interested in the long-term development and improvement of the team, and he tried Friday to put the club's current crisis into that frame of reference.

"It's tough to measure [improvement] now," Oates said, "but as far as individuals, it can work both ways. I've gotten to see some people. I got an opportunity to see Mike Oquist pitch some innings up here because of an injury. I got to see [John] O'Donoghue pitch out of the bullpen. I got to see [Tim] Hulett play third base and I got to see [Mark] Parent catch a few games. Sometimes injuries give you that opportunity."

But the time for that kind of evaluation is September, when the team is out of contention, or spring training, when the pennant race is just a fond or frustrating memory. The fact that it is even a consideration is a sign of the troubled times that the Orioles are trying to survive.

The internal forces at work have been distressing enough, but the external influences cannot be ignored. The Blue Jays recently acquired Rickey Henderson -- probably the best leadoff man in baseball history -- for the stretch run. The Orioles traded for third baseman Mike Pagliarulo to add some left-handed depth, but they again were outflanked.

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