In pitching game, Blue Jays aren't even close

May 11, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

No, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. No you are not dreaming. It's true, Birdland, it's really true: The Blue Jays aren't nearly the team that the Orioles are right now.

The Orioles are 4 1/2 games ahead of the two-time World Series champions after last night's 6-3 win at Camden Yards, and don't look for that number to shrink substantially any time soon -- not as long as the Blue Jays' pitching continues to be the soft touch that it has been in the first five weeks of the season.

Yes, the Jays still have the best lineup in the game, truly a wonder to behold, but, as things stand now, their pitching isn't good enough to contend for 162 games in baseball's toughest division.

As things stand now, the Orioles will have to worry more about the Yankees down the stretch.

Of course, as things stand now, Duane Ward is on the disabled list, Juan Guzman is a shell of his former self and general manager Pat Gillick hasn't made his customary pennant-drive mega-move. If the Jays can get Ward back and Guzman back in form, then add Andy Benes or a reasonable facsimile, they can win the division.

But if all three of those things don't happen, the Jays are going to have a hard time matching up with the Orioles, for whom just about everything is working out this year.

Never was this sudden shift in the rivalry more evident than last night, when the Jays sent out their supposed ace, Guzman, who suddenly isn't much of a pitcher. The Jays gave him a three-run lead and he didn't come close to holding it, allowing eight hits, four walks and five runs in five wildly erratic innings.

Every pitcher is allowed off nights, but Guzman is having an off season so far. He has allowed at least four earned runs in six of his eight starts. Opponents are batting .300 against him. He isn't fooling anyone.

This is a what is known in the trade as a potential season-killer, just as the Orioles' season would potentially be ruined if Mike Mussina or Ben McDonald was a mediocre, hitable .500 pitcher instead of an All-Star in the making.

There is plenty of time for Guzman to get turned around, but, as they always said in detention hall, he'd better start doing it.

Pat Hentgen, Dave Stewart, Al Leiter and apparently Todd Stottlemyre compose the rest of the Jays' rotation after Guzman. Stewart is 37 and has a 5.56 ERA, Leiter has never lasted a season and Stottlemyre is a career .500 pitcher. That's hardly intimidating. Hentgen is the real deal, but if he's the ace instead of Guzman, the team is in trouble.

And as questionable as the rotation is, the bullpen is in even rougher shape. Mike Timlin, Greg Williams and Greg Cadaret have statistics that deserve an R rating.

It spoke volumes when manager Cito Gaston didn't even get anyone up while Cadaret was blowing Monday night's tight, tense game in the eighth inning. Either Cito was asleep or he didn't have anyone better to put in.

It's a predicament with which Johnny Oates is familiar, but it might be time to start putting aside the Oriole bullpen jokes after Mark Williamson and Jim Poole got out of a big jam Monday night and Mike Oquist threw five innings of no-hit middle relief last night.

Of course, things would start to change for the Jays if Ward, one of the game's best closers, could come back healthy. But that's an iffy proposition right now. He is suffering from biceps 'N tendinitis and has had a couple of setbacks in his recovery. The Jays were desperate enough to try acupuncture during the weekend, not a good sign.

Ward will be out at least another three weeks, and until he returns it is virtually impossible for Gaston to organize a bullpen routine, particularly with the others pitching so poorly.

All in all, not a good situation -- and nothing less than a precipitous fall from just two years ago when the Jays would strut into town for a big series throwing Jack Morris, David Cone and Guzman in your face, with Ward and Tom Henke closing you down. Those were the days.

These days, the Jays just don't have enough pitching. They had seven regulars batting over .300 coming into this series at Camden Yards, yet the team was only three games over .500.

Meanwhile, the Orioles just roll along, playing with such calm efficiency that it almost seems routine for them to have built one of baseball's best records. And while their offense has been making the headlines, their starting pitching is the foundation. They're getting terrific stuff from McDonald, Mussina and Sid Fernandez almost every time out. Jamie Moyer is decent most of the time. Fifth starter is a problem with Arthur Rhodes injured, but the Jays have far bigger problems.

Sure, there is still plenty of time for the Jays to get their pitching turned around. It's almost a sure thing that they'll make a big trade for a pitcher, given their track record. But instead of needing it to put them over the top and clinch the division, this time they need it to compete. Big difference, sports fans.

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