Suddenly, O's have look of winner

BUSTER ON BASEBALL

July 30, 1995|By BUSTER OLNEY

The landscape of the American League East changed dramatically Friday, like the San Andreas Fault shifting the division's relative powers. Weaknesses became strengths, the first-place team suddenly looks like a loser, and the Orioles have emerged as the front-runner.

The revised predictions:

1. Orioles. Best defensive team, best pitching among AL East contenders, serviceable offense.

2. Yankees. Best hitting among AL East contenders, average defense, very good pitching.

3. Boston Red Sox. Worst defense in AL, a pitching staff in tatters, and the inherent knowledge that somehow, they are always supposed to fail (and don't underestimate the importance of that last part).

The Yankees traded for pitcher David Cone, improving what has become a solid rotation, and in picking up Ruben Sierra they swapped a player who definitely was not going to help them (Danny Tartabull) for a former All-Star who could be a big plus if he's inspired by being part of a pennant race.

But the Yankees have two huge X-factors. First, Darryl Strawberry. If he hits with the same kind of power he's shown at Triple-A Columbus, he could add to what is already a good offense. If he doesn't hit, though, his presence will be a major distraction, for the other players, for manager Buck Showalter, everybody. His addition is an all-or-nothing move.

Their X-factor No. 2 is owner George Steinbrenner, always good for a few complications, even when the team is playing well. This week he criticized general manager Gene Michael and Showalter for not criticizing Tartabull. Steinbrenner said he is "a little fed up with the whole situation of Stick [Michael] and Buck saying things in meetings and then being Mr. Nice Guys to the press about him. They should stand up and say what they said at the meetings or there are going to be serious consequences."

Wow, that's a twist; it's mandatory to speak one's mind. Wonder what Michael and Showalter would have to say if they offered their heartfelt feelings about The Boss.

The Orioles, on the other hand, addressed a specific need in acquiring Bobby Bonilla. They wanted a right-handed or switch-hitting right fielder to hit in the middle of the order.

Their offense had become predictable: Against subpar pitchers or average pitchers, the Orioles might squeak out four or five runs and win on the strength of pitching and defense. When they ran into good or even slightly above-average pitching, they were shut down. Catcher Greg Zaun and second baseman Bret Barberie and even outfielder Mark Smith gave the Orioles a much-needed boost in the last week, but none of the decision-makers was lulled into a false sense of security.

No one really believed that the Orioles could seriously compete without another hitter, and that's why manager Phil Regan made a public plea for another slugger last week. He knew what he had, and what he didn't have.

What Regan has is a contender.

As all these deals were being consummated, the Red Sox were reeling. Roger Clemens was scratched from his start Friday night because of elbow trouble, and there is real fear in Boston that his season may be over. Their rotation is woefully thin, and the Red Sox brass -- which is in the process of building a home-grown juggernaut that probably won't surface for a couple more years -- don't seem willing to dive into this battle of bucks and minor-league prospects waged by the Orioles and Yankees.

Funny. The race is on, and the first-place team is the only club that doesn't seem to be a part of it.

Oh, yeah, forgot.

4. Detroit.

5. Toronto.

Just win, baby

Regan said he couldn't win the division without another hitter, and now he has that hitter. So it figures that if the Orioles and Regan don't win with Bonilla (barring injuries), the manager could begin next year on the hot seat.

A nasty place to be, considering that the Orioles have mortgaged some of their future -- '96 and beyond -- to take a chance on Bonilla. They'll go into next year with $26.55 million already committed to five position players, and one pitcher.

* Clemens complained recently that the umpires have squeezed the strike zone on him. Let's just assume, for argument's sake, that this is true, and try and identify the cause-and-effect.

Could it be that the Rocket is rather surly with the umps? Before his last start, he exchanged harsh words with Don Denkinger, telling the veteran ump that the balls weren't rubbed properly (the umpires are supposed to rub up the game balls with a special mud). Clemens discovered that the umpires had allowed clubhouse attendants to rub up the balls.

"If they're going to rub them up, you've got to teach them how!" Clemens told Denkinger. This was punctuated, reportedly, by Clemens yelling at Denkinger, "Don't rub them up, that'll give you an extra half-hour to eat six hot dogs before the game."

0$ That'll shrink your strike zone.

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