Fast starts can, do make a difference

April 04, 1996|By John Eisenberg

When was the last time the Orioles got off to a good start?

If you're under 30 and you don't know, don't worry. You weren't born when the Orioles last got off to a good start.

OK, OK, that's an exaggeration. The Orioles won 20 of their first 30 games just two years ago. Also two years before that.

But those are the only two years since 1986 in which the Orioles have played better than .500 ball in their first 30 games.

In the other years since then, they have averaged an 11-19 start.

Holy Jay Tibbs!

It is no wonder they haven't made the playoffs since Ronald Reagan's first term.

"People think you win a pennant at the end of the season, but you don't; you win it at the beginning," Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said last night at Camden Yards. "Building an early lead [in the standings] and playing from in front, that's the way to do it."

Is that how the Orioles will do it this year? Last night's 7-1 win over the Royals gave them a 2-0 record for only the fourth time since Earl Weaver's initial retirement in 1982. They have their best team in years and a highly favorable schedule.

"I think we can get off to a good start this year," Palmeiro said. "I think we will."

Their schedule makes it particularly possible. Twenty of their first 30 games are at home, including a club-record 16 in April. They get to play 11 early games against the Royals and Twins, two of the weakest teams in the American League.

No, the Orioles haven't been a good home team for a while. Nor jTC have they dominated weaker teams.

But there are 48 million reasons (see: payroll) why this is the year for them to alter the course of that recent history.

"My teams start well," manager Davey Johnson said. "I think a good start is important. I always think success breeds success. Anything positive breeds more positive things happening on the field."

Not that it is mandatory that the Orioles start well, understand. Good starts can be wasted; the Orioles wasted one in 1992. That same year, the Blue Jays lost 24 of their first 36 games and rallied to win the World Series, proving that bad starts can be overcome.

The Orioles' talent certainly gives them the wherewithal to overcome any ground they might yield to the Yankees and Red Sox early in the season.

But there is no doubt that their lives will be a lot easier if they don't give up any early ground.

"It's a lot easier to play when you're ahead," Palmeiro said.

And it's a lot easier when a team with so many new parts (three-fifths of the Orioles' roster has turned over in the past 12 months) starts winning right away instead of drifting through April, letting seeds of doubt root.

That's what happened last year. The Orioles were overrated, but their 12-18 start set a desperate tone that never faded.

After their poor start, they never believed in themselves.

"When you get off to a bad start like we did last year, it makes for a long year," catcher Chris Hoiles said. "You waste a lot of energy trying to catch up. You never relax. You go out there and you're tense. When you win early, it takes the pressure off. You can just have fun, go out there and play."

This year's team warrants the great expectations with which it has been burdened. Roberto Alomar's splendid performance in the first two games has already sent the message that things are different, that the Orioles are for real. He had a sacrifice and a home run in his first two at-bats last night.

"I feel like I'm at home here," Alomar said.

Still, this is a team with questions, a team with important players who need to establish themselves early, most prominently Randy Myers, David Wells and Kent Mercker, the three left-handed pitchers.

So far, so good. Myers' impressive save Tuesday was the polar opposite of Doug Jones' blown save in his first chance last year. Wells' strong seven innings last night were the polar opposite of Sid Fernandez's disaster in his first start last year. Relievers Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco have begun with scoreless outings.

"It's nice for all the pitchers to get their feet wet with good performances," Hoiles said.

After the game, a stereo pounded the walls in the clubhouse and the players picked at a barbecue spread. On the scoreboard, the Yankees had won their second straight against the Indians.

"It's obviously way too early to look at the standings and stuff like that," Hoiles said. "But it's never too early to see if a team is playing well. And we are. We won with finesse in the opener and with power tonight. This is a good team."

It's a team that, let's face it, is supposed to get off to a good start.

For a change.

Not since 1985 have the Orioles gone 3-0. You might think it doesn't matter if they win today, so early in the season. But you know what? Maybe it does matter.

Pub Date: 4/04/96

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