Things are falling into (first) place.

KEN ROSENTHAL

September 09, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If ever there was a night to believe, this was it.

The trade for Lonnie Smith. The release of Glenn Davis. The revised starting rotation. And, finally, the come-from-behind, 6-3

victory over the Seattle Mariners.

At 10:15, the right-field scoreboard flashed that Oakland had taken a 2-1 lead over Toronto -- on a two-out, two-run infield

single off closer Duane Ward in the ninth inning.

The Orioles and Seattle were 3-3 in the eighth. Chris Hoiles stepped to the plate with one out and the bases loaded. The crowd rose, clapping, screaming, pleading.

Hoiles had hit his 23rd homer to tie the score in the sixth. This time, he delivered a two-run single down the left-field line, and Camden Yards went wild.

"When I came up last year, this was the deadest division contending team I could imagine," said Jim Poole, who got the final five outs on seven pitches to earn the victory.

"But I was sitting on the bench in the eighth inning. It was great. We just felt we were going to win."

Even before the game, Seattle manager Lou Piniella said the race is now between the Orioles and the New York Yankees. Who can argue, now that Toronto has suffered back-to-back crushing defeats to an Oakland team that had lost 15 of its previous 16 games?

The Orioles are attempting a September comeback of historic proportions. The way the pieces are falling together, they just might succeed.

In a move as important as the Smith trade, manager Johnny Oates yesterday reworked his rotation so that Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Jamie Moyer will start 14 of the final 22 games.

Under the new plan, Mussina and McDonald will pitch the first two games against New York in the final homestand, and the final two against Toronto -- without anyone working on three day's rest.

So, the pitching is in place.

And, with Smith, the offense is improved.

General manager Roland Hemond said he was pushed to make the deal by the Orioles' new owners, who are waiting to be approved by major-league baseball.

"They've been after us to find ways to improve the ballclub," he said. "They've given us encouragement to do so."

Smith, 37, won't be eligible for the post-season, but he has played in five World Series. Don't be discouraged by his age. The Pittsburgh Pirates wanted to re-sign him for next season.

Indeed, the Pirates were so adamant about keeping Smith, they repeatedly rejected offers from the Orioles before Aug. 31, the deadline for the postseason roster.

Smith, a .289 lifetime hitter, will be worth the two minor-leaguers to be named. He can still run, and he has batted .355 since the All-Star break, and .300 against left-handed pitching this season.

To hear Hemond tell it, the Orioles only released Davis after acquiring Smith, but who's kidding whom? Davis was a goner after his explosive confrontation with Oates Monday, despite the touchy-feely pronouncements yesterday from both sides.

The Smith deal made sense regardless, with Jeffrey Hammonds apparently out for the season, Mark McLemore eight for his last 45 and Mike Devereaux just coming out of a 4-for-50 slump.

Oates said Smith will be the right-handed designated hitter, make an occasional outfield start and provide help off the bench.

Can he turn this 24-day rental into a magical mystery tour? History suggests no, but Piniella, for one, is souring on Toronto as the division favorite.

"I'm not so sure anymore," Piniella said. "I felt that way a month ago. I felt that way a couple of weeks ago. But now I'm not so sure.

"They're struggling. The question is whether they can regroup, even though they have the lead. Sometimes, you're in first place, and you're chasing other teams."

Still, the Orioles were six games out on Sept. 1. Only six teams this century have rallied from that great a deficit, and nearly all fall into the miracle category.

Start with the '78 Yankees (a great Red Sox collapse), '64 Cardinals (a great Phillies collapse) and '51 Giants (are you there, Ralph Branca?).

The list also includes the '30 Cardinals, the '38 Cubs and, of course, the '74 Orioles. These Orioles also were 10 1/2 games out on May 30. But who's to say this is an impossible dream?

"I don't want to get too excited yet -- we've got a ways to go," second baseman Harold Reynolds said. "But I'm telling you man, it looks good, it really does."

Goodbye, Glenn.

Hello, Lonnie.

Let the race begin.

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