After acing quizzes, O's get 1st exam

April 08, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

MINNEAPOLIS -- Not to detract from the Orioles' 5-1 start, but tomorrow night they'll face a team with a real cleanup hitter, not someone named Joe Vitiello or Ron Coomer.

Vitiello, Coomer, Michael Tucker, Greg Myers -- those are the four sluggers who have batted cleanup against the Orioles thus far. They had combined for 48 career homers entering the season, two fewer than Albert Belle hit in 1995.

Now, the Belle truly is about to ring.

Bring on the hated Tribe.

It's too early to talk about a showdown, a playoff preview or anything so dramatic. But the two-game series against the Indians will be the Orioles' first legitimate test of the season, a likely indicator of how far this team has come.

The Orioles were 2-10 against Cleveland last season, with seven jTC of the losses coming by one or two runs. The Indians went to the World Series, then added Julio Franco and Jack McDowell. But these clubs are so much closer now.

In the past four games, the Orioles have rallied from three runs down in the eighth inning to defeat Kansas City, and prevailed in two close, low-scoring games at the Metrodome, a park in which they traditionally fare poorly.

Yesterday, the Twins were their usual pesky selves, pulling within 2-1 in the seventh, then 3-2 in the eighth. But the Orioles added one run in each of the final three innings, escaping with a 4-2 victory.

Last year's club might have been 2-4 at this point. It wouldn't have rallied Thursday -- the Orioles were 5-54 when trailing after seven innings last season. And it might have gotten swept in Minnesota, blowing every lead in sight.

This team has so much more of a winning edge; it's almost impossible to compare with last year's sleepwalking crew. The Indians aren't going to intimidate these Orioles, especially not at Camden Yards.

"Don't you guys feel we have a better shot?" Rafael Palmeiro asked reporters yesterday. "We've more evenly matched now. It's not like last year, when their talent level was much better. We have as good a chance as they do."

Again, the season is only a week old. But both teams will pitch their No. 2 and 3 starters in this series -- David Wells faces McDowell tomorrow, Scott Erickson meets Orel Hershiser Wednesday. Let's see what happens.

"Last year, when they got a couple of runs early, we folded -- especially late in the game with [Jose] Mesa around," Mike Mussina said. "I just think we have a different attitude now. We come to the park expecting to win, as opposed to hoping we have a chance."

Of course, it's easy to display such confidence against inferior clubs, but the Royals just took two of three from Boston, and the Twins entered yesterday leading the American League with a .345 batting average.

Considering the way the Twins dominate at the Metrodome -- the Orioles haven't had a winning record there since 1983 -- this series ranked as a triumph, even if Minnesota played without Kirby Puckett and Marty Cordova.

Pitching and defense, that's how the Orioles are winning, just like in their glory days. The rotation has produced five quality starts, the bullpen 15 scoreless innings. Defensively, it's clear the Orioles will rarely beat themselves.

Think about it: They're 5-1, and they're not even hitting yet. Palmeiro is batting .190, Brady Anderson .174, Chris Hoiles .118. The team has scored only 25 runs in six games.

"This wasn't any indication of what we can do -- we've never played well here," Hoiles said. "I'm sure [tomorrow] with a better team in there -- especially being Cleveland -- you'll see something totally different."

Manager Davey Johnson must be rubbing off on his players -- when was the last time you heard an Oriole make such a promise? Next thing you know, they'll all be pointing to their biceps, just like Albert, Prince of Cork.

C'mon, Davey, check his bat.

The Indians' offense is more explosive than the Orioles', and their pitching is deeper. But for all their hype, it's difficult to imagine that they'll be better than last season, even with McDowell and Franco.

No way Mesa will convert 46 of his 48 save chances. No way the Indians will get away with such shoddy defense. And no way they'll win 27 games in their last at-bat.

This isn't to say the Orioles are in their class, not when they're one pitching injury away from a crisis. The only serious alternative in the minors is Rocky Coppinger, who needs a full season at Triple-A. The rest of the farm system is so depleted, making a trade will be difficult, if not impossible.

Thus, it's alarming that Armando Benitez already has a tender elbow, while Johnson is trying to protect Arthur Rhodes, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. Then again, every team is thin pitching, other than the Indians and Yankees.

For now, the Orioles are relatively healthy, and playing about as well as they could have imagined. The Indians will provide a measuring stick. The Indians are ultimately the team to beat.

"We match up about the same," Roberto Alomar said. "Maybe they have a little more offense than us, maybe more pitching. But we have a better defense. And we have some guys who can hit the ball, too, hit it out of the park."

The Belle is about to ring.

# Bring on the Tribe.

Pub Date: 4/08/96

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