O's, fans see glimpse of promise

April 03, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Ben McDonald's X-rays were negative. Alan Mills threw pain-free in the bullpen. Sid Fernandez pitched batting practice and manager Johnny Oates said it was the best he looked all spring.

On a clear day at Camden Yards, the Orioles could see forever.

It was only an exhibition game, only the final tuneup for the season opener, but Lee Smith exerted more effort strolling in from the bullpen than the Orioles did in scoring nine runs on the defending National League champion Phillies.

Home runs by Chris Sabo and Rafael Palmeiro, a 10-pitch ninth inning by Smith, a sellout crowd on a gorgeous afternoon -- if Opening Day is this good, owner Peter Angelos might buy us two football teams, plus Andy Benes.

All right, no need to get carried away, but after a week of ominous developments, the Orioles can breathe easy. The way their pitchers had been dropping, it looked like Mike Oquist might wind up the Opening Day starter. But after yesterday, Oates had the familiar gleam in his eye.

"Maybe," he said, "it's all coming together at the right time."

So, let's get started. The expectations surrounding this team make every setback seem catastrophic, but there's so much to like -- especially now with Smith finding his groove, McDonald and Mills fighting through minor ailments and Fernandez progressing nicely toward his first start on April 17.

Pitching remains the big question, but 27 other teams can say the same thing. The Orioles' advantage is that they can outscore any opponent. If their top three starters take the mound often enough, they'll be a lock for the postseason, be it as a division champion or wild card.

"Our questions are not so much about ability, but getting them out there enough times," first base coach Davey Lopes said. "If we do that, we're in pretty good shape. I don't know of another team, other than Atlanta, that can afford to lose a starter for a length of time."

The scary part is, Mike Mussina is struggling to find his command, McDonald is nursing a mild elbow problem and Fernandez is coming off shoulder bursitis. Nine of the Orioles' first 11 games are against slugging Texas and Detroit. It could get ugly early.

Then again, spring training rarely provides an accurate gauge of things to come. Maybe it's false hope, but several Orioles believe that Mussina will be a different pitcher tomorrow, with Camden Yards packed and the competition meaningful.

"Moose was fishing for himself this spring, making sure everything was all right," McDonald said. "A lot of people are saying he got hit a lot.

"But he's the kind of guy who knows what he has to do to get ready. He's healthy, that's the main thing. When he's healthy, we all know what he can do."

The same can be said of Smith, who spent the spring refining his repertoire rather than worrying about his results. Even with questions about his fastball lingering, Oates and pitching coach Dick Bosman expressed little concern when their new closer allowed eight runs in his first 8 2/3 innings.

It now appears their confidence was justified -- Smith finished the spring with three scoreless outings, and his fastball registered 84-85 mph on the "slow" radar gun yesterday, meaning it probably was in the 88-89 mph range. Smith expects his velocity to keep increasing, even though he won't hit 90 regularly anymore.

He mixes in sliders and forkballs now, and yesterday he unleashed a wicked sidearm fastball to strike out Tom Quinlan for the final out. "I know I wouldn't want Lee Smith dropping down on me sidearm," Oates said. Hitters, beware -- Bosman has Smith working on a sidearm curveball, too.

Whatever, it's time for the games to be played, time for spring fantasy to turn into box-score reality. Mike Devereaux continued his torrid hitting yesterday, Mark McLemore turned two double plays, Jeffrey Hammonds accelerated from first to third on a dropped fly ball in about 2.6 seconds. Encouraging signs all, but what do they all mean?

On one hand, the Orioles can fret that Jamie Moyer has been their most reliable starter, that Mussina, McDonald and Fernandez face varying degrees of uncertainty, that their middle- and late-inning relief might not be as good as they think.

On the other hand, they can point to yesterday's 9-3 victory over Philadelphia as evidence of the team they can be.

"Let's start the season and see how good we are," Bosman shouted to Palmeiro in the post-game clubhouse.

"We're good -- real good," Palmeiro replied.

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