To move up, O's must step it up

June 14, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Call it whatever you'd like -- stepping it up, sending a message, taking a stand. We'll let the Orioles pick their own cliche, just so long as they prove they can beat the first-place New York Yankees.

Their 3-1 loss in last night's series opener did not bode well for a team that had seemingly turned the corner in Kansas City and Boston. Will the Orioles ever get on a roll? If ever there was a time to kick the Yankees, this is it.

Indeed, the situation is the reverse of when these teams first met, at Yankee Stadium in late May. The Yankees were soaring, the Orioles were struggling. It was little wonder the Yankees won two of three games.

Now, the Orioles have no excuse. The Yankees are completing an 11-game, 11-day road trip in which they went 1-2 in Texas and 1-3 in Toronto. Last night, Melido Perez became their first pitcher to win this month other than Jimmy Key.

Yes, it's only June, only four games in 162. But with a strike looming, this series takes on a greater urgency. Let the players vow to play a full season if they believe otherwise. For all anyone knows, these might be the most meaningful games the Orioles will play in 1994.

"You may not have the full season to catch up," manager Johnny Oates said. "I would think a middle-of-June series possibly carries more importance this year than a normal year. Not that this is going to be an abnormal year, but just in case."

Even without the threat of a strike, this would be a big series, a June showdown between the two top teams in the best division in baseball. "We know exactly where the Orioles are at this point," Yankees shortstop Mike Gallego said. "And we know exactly what we've been doing of late."

"It's relatively important," Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina said. "I think the three games against Boston and the four games here are one of those times during the year that you can pick out at the beginning of the season or when the season's over and say, that was an important week."

So, how did the home team respond last night? With six hits against a pitcher who has only two wins since April 21 -- both against the Orioles. Sid Fernandez worked 6 2/3 strong innings, but Perez came within three outs of throwing his first shutout since Aug. 27, 1992.

Perez retired 13 in a row at one point, and Oates said he pitched "as well as anybody has pitched against us all year." The Orioles didn't score until Cal Ripken and Leo Gomez hit doubles off left-hander Steve Howe in the ninth. Bob Wickman struck out Chris Hoiles for the final out and his fourth save.

The Yankees had won only three of their previous 14 games. Perez had won only one of his eight previous starts. What was it Rafael Palmeiro said on Sunday? "It's good to be playing the Yankees right now. They're a little down and we're hot."

Sorry, Raffy, but it's never a good time for the Orioles to be playing the Yankees, hasn't been for more than a decade. The Yankees haven't lost a season series in Baltimore since 1982. They're 78-43 against the Orioles since the beginning of '85.

That's a stunning .645 winning percentage, and it's not like the Yankees have been world-beaters all these years. The Toronto Blue Jays might find more creative ways to torture the Orioles, but the Yankees have owned them for even longer.

That's why this series is so significant. The Orioles took a big step by sweeping three games from Toronto at Camden Yards in early May. But now it turns out that the Yankees are a more serious threat, and they've already beaten the Orioles three of four.

Heck, even the fans seemed out of it last night, getting shouted down by a vocal Yankees minority. The fans need to wake up, too. Palmeiro has fewer All-Star votes than Ron Karkovice, Mike Stanley, Brent Gates, Alex Gonzalez and Greg Gagne.

The scary part is, this isn't going to get any easier. Mike Oquist and Jamie Moyer, the Orioles' next two starting pitchers, are sporting ERAs in the 5.00 range. Mussina faces Jimmy Key in the series finale, and that's certainly no lock.

"We're going to need something maybe similar to what happened against Toronto -- sweeping them was a huge step," Mussina said. "Against Toronto and the Yankees, teams we haven't done well against, we've got to try to turn the table back in our favor."

Last night they had a chance to move into first place for the first time since April 19. They were coming off their 5-1 road trip. And they seemingly were snapping out of their offensive slump, having scored 29 runs in their previous four games.

Suddenly, it's all forgotten. The Orioles can establish themselves as worthy contenders, or they can extend a decade of frustration against the Yankees. To a championship team, the choice would be obvious. Step it up. Send a message. Take a stand.

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