At half, still long way to go, hopefully

July 11, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

First place would have been a fitting reward for a team that was six games out as recently as June 1. But second place is a fitting reminder that nothing in this game comes easy.

Indeed, for all that yesterday promised, it was only fair that a mere 18 hours after winning a game they should have lost, the Orioles lost a game they should have won.

Lost on a day Jamie Moyer retired 17 in a row, a day they took a two-run lead into the eighth inning, a day they were three outs away from first place.

It happens.

And so the Orioles enter the All-Star break with a 50-36 record, their best after 86 games since they won the American League pennant 15 years ago.

They also enter the break a half-game behind the New York Yankees, and two games out of a possible wild-card spot, behind Cleveland or Chicago.

They've come a long way.

They've got a long way to go.

"It's not imperative, being in first place at the break," first base coach Davey Lopes said. "It's where you are when the season terminates, whenever that might be this year.

"My main concern is piling up as many wins as you can. You're not just talking about first place, you're talking about an extra spot in the playoffs."

The Orioles almost certainly will contend for at least that spot -- if the season lasts the full 162 games, without interruption from a players' strike.

The chances of that happening appear slim, and it's a bigger shame in Baltimore than most places, because this is rapidly developing into a special baseball summer.

On June 4, the Orioles were 28-24 and ranked 13th in the league in runs. Since then, they've gone 22-12 and jumped to seventh place in runs.

This is the team everyone was waiting to see. The Orioles are now on a pace to finish with 868 runs -- 82 more than last season, and 50 more than the club record set in 1985.

It won't be good enough if Ben McDonald remains the pitcher who is 3-6 with a 5.66 ERA since May 8, instead of the pitcher who started the season 7-0 with a 3.08 ERA.

And it won't be good enough if Sid Fernandez sets the club record for home runs allowed -- he has given up 20, and is within reach of the mark shared by Robin Roberts and Scott McGregor (35).

But enough quibbling.

"Three weeks ago, I said I'd do anything to go home at the break with 50 wins," manager Johnny Oates said, and that's exactly where his team stands, on a 94-win pace.

As so often happens in this game, things even out. Finally, the Orioles are healthy. The Yankees, meanwhile, have lost eight of 11, in large part because of injuries.

In the past month, they've placed three starting infielders on the disabled list -- first baseman Don Mattingly, second baseman Pat Kelly and shortstop Mike Gallego.

For the Orioles, a victory yesterday would have been the capper, the climax of their stunning turnaround and a psychological blow to the Yankees.

Since July 1992, they've held sole possession of first place twice -- for one day last season and one day this past April.

Yesterday, Oates had everything set up perfectly -- the league's premier setup man (Mark Eichhorn) for the eighth, and the league's premier closer (Lee Smith) for the ninth.

But Eichhorn gave up an RBI double to pinch hitter Brent Gates, Smith gave up a two-run homer to Mark McGwire and the A's, not the Orioles, got the meaningful victory they wanted.

Oakland manager Tony La Russa called Ron Darling's 136-pitch outing on three days' rest "heroic," and seemed ecstatic the A's finished their East Coast trip 7-3, moving nine games under .500.

Nine games under -- that's a landmark achievement in the AL West, especially for a team that once was 19-43.

"Nine is a single digit," La Russa said. "I think this is something to get excited about."

The Orioles were less buoyant, but hardly discouraged. Jeffrey Hammonds provided the season's first truly magical moment Saturday night. But the first half wasn't exactly a downer.

There was the stirring Opening Day triumph over Kansas City. The sweeps of Toronto at Camden Yards and SkyDome. The huge May 22 victory at Yankee Stadium that might have saved Oates' job.

There was the old Mike Mussina and the new Leo Gomez. The wondrous Cal Ripken and Rafael Palmeiro. The revived Chris Hoiles and Brady Anderson. And -- who would have believed it? (( -- Chris Sabo in the outfield.

First place? The Orioles had a 7 1/2 -game lead in July 1989, and saw it disappear. As Lee Smith put it: "I don't think the Yankees were going to call us and say, 'You guys won it.' "

Or, as second baseman Mark McLemore said: "Being in first place right now looks good, but it doesn't mean anything. Being in first place on Oct. 2 means everything."

We should only get to Oct. 2.

& Please, pretty please.

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