O's persist in early pressure test

April 10, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

The Orioles are going to have to deal with a lot of pressure this year, whether they are willing to admit it or not.

There is pressure on manager Johnny Oates to get the most out of his upgraded team. There is pressure on Mike Mussina to prove that he still is the ace of the pitching staff. There is pressure on each of the club's new additions to justify the great expense that was incurred to bring them to Baltimore.

The heat is on, but the Orioles kept their cool again yesterday on the way to a 7-5 victory over the Texas Rangers at Camden Yards.

Mussina pitched five solid innings en route to his second victory of the year as the Orioles won for the third time in their first four games. Mike Devereaux and Chris Hoiles hit big home runs. Lee Smith recorded his third save in three attempts. And then there ** was Alan Mills.

You want pressure? Try holding a one-run lead with runners at second and third, none out and three of the top power hitters in the game waiting in line to hand you your lunch.

Mills pulled one of the greatest escapes in the short history of Oriole Park when he struck out Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco and Dean Palmer in that unenviable situation in the sixth inning. The Rangers would make it interesting again before the game was over, but that spectacular middle-relief performance saved the game for Mussina three innings before Smith saved another game for the Orioles.

The Orioles have gotten out of the box in a hurry, which is just what Oates had hoped they would do after last year's discouraging 5-13 start. He has stopped short of saying that the early weeks were critical to the club's chances of challenging for the American League East title, but he knows how much last year's slow start haunted the club later in the season.

"I think for our own sanity, it's good for us -- with all of the expectations -- to get off to a good start," Oates said. "But it wasn't a must. I think we have enough experience and talent this year to overcome afflictions of differing types."

That was true yesterday. The club was able to weather a difficult sixth inning that seemed certain to cost Mussina the victory. He had given up just two hits through the first five, but the Rangers reeled off three straight no-out singles to pull within a run.

"I thought Mike was starting to lose it," Oates said. "I'd be willing to bet that he was more fatigued after throwing 86 pitches today than he was after throwing 90-some in his first start, knowing the kind of ballgame it was and the kind of pitches that he was throwing."

Mussina said essentially the same thing. He had it fairly easy on Opening Day. The Orioles jumped out to a 6-1 lead, which allowed him to take a more relaxed approach to the less explosive Kansas City Royals lineup.

"For the first four or five innings, I had pretty good stuff," Mussina said, "but I was expending a lot of energy because I was throwing a lot of fastballs. It was almost the same pitch count as the first game, but in that game I didn't have to rear back and throw as many fastballs. It took a lot out of me.

"They are a really dangerous team, so you really hate to get beat with something other than your best pitch."

Nobody had to tell Mills what he was up against. Gonzalez hit 46 home runs last year to tie for the league championship. Canseco needs no introduction. And Palmer hit six home runs in six games here last year.

Mills got Gonzalez on a full-count slider. He threw fastballs past Canseco and Palmer. The sellout crowd of 47,225 gave him a standing ovation as he walked off the field.

"I owe him pretty big right now," Mussina said. "He came in and from the dugout you could see the life of his fastball. He was throwing the ball right by people. That was fortunate for us. It was just a great performance in a huge spot -- not just for myself but for the whole team."

Devereaux had provided an early three-run lead with an opposite-field fly ball that cleared the right-field scoreboard in the third inning. Hoiles added a two-run shot off Rangers starter Kevin Brown in the bottom of the sixth to re-establish a three-run lead, but Mills would not be so fortunate when he faced Gonzalez a second time.

Mills retired six straight batters before David Hulse led off the eighth inning with a single. Will Clark drew a one-out walk and Gonzalez hit a line drive into the left-field bleachers for his second home run of the season.

The Orioles were coming off a disappointing defeat the night before. They had fought back from a three-run deficit in the eighth inning only to lose the game in the ninth, 7-5. This time, the roles were reversed and they rebuffed the Rangers' late-inning comeback attempt.

Hoiles reached base on an error to lead off the bottom of the eighth and Chris Sabo followed with a double to left. Jeffrey Hammonds came up one out later and lofted a sacrifice fly to center to add an important insurance run.

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