Solid crew of reserves is benchmark of much-improved O's team

May 01, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

MINNEAPOLIS -- Kevin Bass tried to contain himself. This is his 14th season in the majors. He knows better than to get too excited.

Still, the more Bass thought about it, the more it struck him.

This is the best club he has ever played on.

Better than the San Francisco Sock Exchange featuring Kevin Mitchell, Will Clark and Matt Williams.

And better than the 1986 Houston Astros team that won the National League West title.

"I was just sitting there today thinking about that," Bass said yesterday after the Orioles' 6-3 victory over the Minnesota Twins.

"I don't like to speak too soon about things, things you really want to happen. But if you just look at it, man, you bring a pitcher out there. What do you do, walk Cal [Ripken] to get to Harold [Baines]?"

Bass chuckled.

"Then you've got Chris Hoiles."

He chuckled again.

"Then you've got Andy Van Slyke."

Bass tried to stop himself, but couldn't.

"They've put together a pretty club," he said. "They really have."

How good?

"We're as good a team as there is in baseball," Rafael Palmeiro said.

Surely, they're the best 2-3 team, but on a clear day -- as clear as they get under a Teflon roof -- Palmeiro could see forever.

The No. 5 starter? He struck out nine.

The No. 9 hitter? He hit a three-run homer.

Not to be overlooked, the rookie setup man pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings, and the backup second baseman threw out a runner at home plate.

Yes, this is the best team of the Roland Hemond Era, a team with a legitimate chance to win the AL East, a team deeper than any in the Orioles' recent past.

Want to know the biggest difference in this club? It's not the power -- that was pretty much there. It's not the pitching -- that was coming.

No, the biggest difference in this club is the bench -- Bass, Manny Alexander and Matt Nokes; Jack Voigt, Damon Buford, Jeff Manto and Sherman Obando.

Power, speed, defense, experience.

It sure beats Jeff Tackett.

The New York Yankees beat you with 25 players, plugging in a Jim Leyritz here, a Randy Velarde there.

Now, the Orioles have closed that gap.

Indeed, even on days the reserves don't contribute much, their importance to the team is obvious.

Right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds is not ready to play every day coming off major knee surgery. Bass filled in capably for two games this weekend. Hammonds returned yesterday, and hit a three-run homer.

Hoiles, the catcher, couldn't remember the last time he didn't start back-to-back games. But it happened this weekend, before the season was even a week old.

Matt Nokes hit a two-run homer Friday night.

Hoiles added a bases-empty shot yesterday.

Any questions?

"Obviously, I'd like to play as much as possible," Hoiles said. "Then again, in August and September, you're usually dragging a bit. I don't think that's going to be the case this year. It will be different than what we're used to."

That's good news for Hoiles, who led the AL in innings caught last season. But the other regulars will benefit, too. Only that stubborn guy at shortstop will start every game.

"We're not going to be a team where only nine guys play," manager Phil Regan said. "It's going to take 25 guys to win. And before the season's over, we'll need 'em all."

When former manager Johnny Oates said that, it was lip service. Regan says it because he means it. Because it's part of his philosophy.

Of course, the job becomes easier when you've got Nokes instead of Tackett, Bass instead of Chris Sabo, Obando instead of Lonnie Smith.

Oates never had this good a bench.

Nokes? He hit 17 homers in limited playing time the past two seasons. Tackett, now at Triple-A with Detroit, has hit 19 homers in his 11-year pro career.

Bass? The switch-hitter is not only a better fit than Sabo, he's also an upgrade over Dwight Smith, a left-handed hitter with limited outfield skills.

Obando? He led the International League in slugging percentage last season. Lonnie Smith was last seen at the Homestead, Fa., free-agent camp, unemployed.

Voigt led the Orioles' reserves with 154 at-bats last season; now, he might not survive the cutdown from 28 players to 25.

Of course, any manager would play veterans like Nokes and Bass. But would Oates have started Alexander three straight games at second?

Alexander, a rookie?

Alexander, a converted shortstop?

No chance.

Granted, Obando, Buford and Alexander are more experienced than when they first joined the club. But under Regan, they're practically reborn.

Heck, Alexander was overjoyed when Regan wrote his name into the lineup for an exhibition game in Fort Myers, Fla.

It was his fourth spring with the Orioles.

And his first start.

Alexander looked nervous in his first major-league start Friday night, but he made three strong defensive plays Saturday and yesterday went 1-for-4 with a walk.

Bret Barberie had shin splints.

But the Orioles didn't suffer.

Then there's Buford. He spent two years on the bench under Oates, and he's not starting under Regan, either. But so far, he has appeared in four of the Orioles' five games.

"I've had a change of heart about it," Buford said. "As much as I want to play every day, it's better to be here with the Orioles, waiting for an opportunity, than to be with any other team right now, or at Triple-A."

The veterans know it.

The kids know it.

"We've got a chance to win here," Buford said.

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