Slumping O's savor run of good fortune

May 23, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- Manager Johnny Oates went from beet red to tickled pink. Pitching coach Dick Bosman put his hand over his heart. Bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks raised both arms above his head and shouted, "We win! I knew we could do it before June."

A team shouldn't need 10 innings to win when it outhits an opponent 16-9, but the Orioles were in no position to complain. They desperately needed yesterday's 6-5 victory over the New York Yankees. The question now is whether they can build on it.

Facing a Milwaukee team with an 11-game losing streak should help, but who knows with these Orioles? They beat Roger Clemens after getting swept by Minnesota last weekend, then dropped four straight. Yesterday, they gasped and wheezed until the final out. But maybe now the worst is over.

The Yankees weren't going to play .700 ball the entire season. The Orioles weren't going to average 2.5 runs per game. But boy, how quickly things change. For two days, the Yankees looked clearly superior. Then the Orioles won the series finale with their bench -- the Yankee way.

Jack Voigt couldn't help but recall one of those rare other times he was an offensive hero -- last June 4, when he hit a home run off Randy Johnson. The homer led to the second victory of a 10-game winning streak. For Voigt, who remembers every hit, the parallel was too obvious to ignore.

As Rafael Palmeiro put it, "Everything evens out in this game. One day, it'll be our turn to win eight or nine games in a row. This could be the start of it. We haven't really been playing bad. Things just haven't been going our way."

Take Palmeiro -- he has a 24-game hitting streak, and is in a slump compared with the Yankees' Paul O'Neill. Indeed, for 40 games, a quarter of the season, the Yankees could do no wrong. Entering yesterday, they were 18-4 at home, with nine straight wins. Their 28-12 start was their best since 1958.

The Yankees played this series without third baseman Wade Boggs and catchers Mike Stanley and Matt Nokes, and no one noticed. Boggs' replacement, Randy Velarde, hit his first two home runs. The third-and fourth-string catchers, Jim Leyritz and Bob Melvin, hit one each.

They've got a better rotation than the Orioles, a better bench and yes, a better manager. They still look like the team to beat, not just in the AL East, but the entire league. But the Orioles pulled back within 4 1/2 games yesterday, when they easily could have fallen 6 1/2 behind.

"They're a very good ballclub, but they've got some weaknesses, too," Oates said. "We all know they're not going to play this well all year. If they do, they'll end up winning 130 games. Then you can tip your cap to them, send them a bottle of champagne and make Buck the manager of the century."

There's no need for that yet, but Showalter did show the gumption to bench O'Neill against Arthur Rhodes on Saturday and use Melvin as his DH. Think Oates would ever sit a hitter as hot as O'Neill? Heck, no, he'd write his name into the lineup twice.

Melvin proceeded to hit a three-run homer that triggered New York's 5-4 victory. He's the Yankees' No. 4 catcher, and he's better than the Orioles' backup, Jeff Tackett. In

deed, if Oates had Leyritz, Velarde and Gerald Williams, maybe he'd rest his regulars more.

Who can figure this stuff out? Oates finally juggled his lineup this weekend, but Mark McLemore made like Mike Devereaux in the No. 2 hole yesterday, striking out four times. Devereaux, batting sixth, hit an eighth-inning triple off the wall in right-center and scored to give the Orioles a 4-3 lead.

Bernie Williams, the Yankees' regular center fielder, might have caught both Devereaux's ball and Voigt's shallow bloop in the 10th. Voigt, who earlier had a broken-bat single, hit his two-run game-winner off the label. Daryl Boston, positioned near the monuments, didn't even get close to the ball.

The go-ahead run was scored by Lonnie Smith, the Orioles' 38-year-old pinch runner. The winning run was scored by Leo Gomez, who broke out of a 1-for-15 slump with a career-high, four-hit game. Everyone but owner Peter Angelos wanted to release Gomez this spring. Now Lay-o is darned near invaluable.

It could have been the most crushing defeat of the season, what with Oates' ejection, the Yankees' two late-inning homers, the Orioles' three blown leads. Two nights earlier, the Orioles cursed their luck when Pat Kelly hit a ball that bounced fair down the right-field line and Smith one that bounced foul. But who's complaining now?

The Yankees nearly broke the game open in the sixth, when Leyritz's single tied the score and left them with men on first and second with none out. A five- or six-run inning wouldn't have been surprising. But Mike Mussina buckled down against the bottom of the order, and two was all the Yankees got.

A few breaks the other way, and we're talking about a three-game sweep, a 6 1/2 -game deficit, a mini-crisis in May. Instead, the Orioles can point to the big day by Gomez, the clutch hit by Voigt, their 10 extra-base hits in the past two games.

Chris Sabo is back, and one of these days, Jeffrey Hammonds will join him. Devereaux isn't going to hit .190 all season. Chris Hoiles isn't going to hit .211. Brady Anderson isn't going to hit .219. Maybe yesterday's game will be a launching point. The Orioles had better hope it wasn't just a lucky win.

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