Suddenly, Obando is critical link

May 11, 1995|By KEN ROSENTHAL

BOSTON -- One night they erupt, the next night they get shut down. It is this way every time the Orioles are in contention. Their offense is never as good as they claim.

That's why Sherman Obando suddenly looms as a very important player for this team, especially now with Andy Van Slyke suffering from an injured left forearm.

Manager Phil Regan said last night that Obando is a "better outfielder than I was led to believe." He has started Obando four of the past six games, and now he's going to play him even more.

"I don't know if it'll be every day," Regan said after the Orioles' 6-2 loss to the Boston Red Sox. "But he's going to play quite a bit."

Obando went 1-for-3 last night, and Regan said his seventh-inning single to left would have been a double anywhere else. He also made a diving catch in right field to save a run, and another running grab in right-center.

"Everyone knows I'm not Van Slyke or Ken Griffey," Obando said. "But I'm not as bad as people say, either. It [the criticism] never bothers me. I know I can play out there."

Obando failed to catch Jose Canseco's bloop RBI single down the right-field line in the first inning, but Regan exonerated him for that, saying, "We had moved him over to right-center. . . . That was our fault."

Amazing, isn't it? Former manager Johnny Oates used to play his best outfielder (Brady Anderson) in the big right field at Fenway Park. Regan is using his worst outfielder, and seems not the least bit concerned.

Obando has had two operations on his left knee and one on his right, and his season ended last year when he broke his left shin Aug. 18. He said he's running at only 80 percent. As his leg improves, so will his jumps on fly balls.

The fact is, the Orioles need Obando's bat, with or without Van Slyke. Like everyone else, the manager is convinced his team is going to hit. But Obando, batting .375 in 16 at-bats, can only help.

For all the talk about the Orioles' offense, the lineup consists of one legitimate No. 3 hitter (Rafael Palmeiro) and six others who could bat sixth. It remains to be seen whether this will be an explosive offensive club.

The offense is a bigger concern than Sid Fernandez. It's %J potentially a bigger concern than the bullpen. It's a concern that could exist all season, just as it has, oh, for the past decade or so.

Think of the other AL East contenders: Vaughn, Canseco and Greenwell in Boston. Alomar, Molitor and Carter in Toronto, O'Neill, Boggs and Mattingly in New York.

Which Orioles evoke the same fear? Palmeiro for certain, Harold Baines on occasion and Chris Hoiles to a growing extent. The rest of the hitters? They blow hot and cold.

It's one thing when you struggle against Kevin Appier or David Cone. It's quite another when you're equally inept against Danny Darwin, Rheal Cormier and Erik Hanson.

The Orioles entered last night's game ranked seventh in the American League in runs. That's the middle of the pack. That's where they finished last season. That's where they belong.

The blame can't fall on any one player -- when an offense sputters, it's a collective problem. Still, Regan is already facing one major question, and eventually might face another.

How long can he stick with Leo Gomez?

And how long can he bat Cal Ripken cleanup?

Start with Gomez. Chris Sabo must be loving this. Remember how he ripped Gomez for batting .197 two years ago? Too bad he's now with the Chicago White Sox. He'd have an absolute field day, with Gomez batting .143.

Once upon a time, Gomez could cry uncle, and owner Peter Angelos would come to his rescue. But he reported overweight, then asked for $1.85 million in arbitration. Given the choice, Uncle Peter probably would disown him.

The problem is, Jeff Manto isn't a long-term solution, and the farm system has little to offer. The Orioles might need to trade for a third baseman before the season is over.

Gomez, though, is just one of nine. Van Slyke? He was a physical question mark from the start. Jeffrey Hammonds? He's batting .211 coming off reconstructive knee surgery, and rarely starts two games in a row.

Those are two of the three outfielders, and they might never contribute the way they should. This is why the Orioles tried to sign Jay Buhner last winter. Once again, they lack an imposing power hitter in their outfield.

Heck, it's not even a stretch to envision Obando as the Orioles' No. 4 hitter of the future. The job now belongs to Ripken, but he's not a true cleanup man. Regan probably would be better off batting him in the sixth spot.

This isn't a knock on Ripken, who is off to a decent start, and almost certainly will produce his usual 20-homer, 80-RBI season. It's just that he isn't an Albert Belle, a Joe Carter, a Frank Thomas.

So, who should hit fourth? For now, why not Hoiles? A belief exists within the organization that Hoiles is not comfortable hitting cleanup. Who would know? In the past four seasons, he has had only 30 at-bats in the No. 4 spot.

Whatever, Regan isn't contemplating any major changes for now, other than more playing time for Obando.

"I know we're going to hit, I know we're going to hit," he said, repeating himself for emphasis. "We have too much talent not to."

But not so much talent that they can't find a spot for Sherman Obando.

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