It's up to O's: crank it up or wave white flag

June 18, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

No more excuses. Bobby Bonilla isn't at DH. Cal Ripken isn't at third base. The bullpen is stable. The rotation is past rock bottom. It's time for the Orioles to put up or shut up, once and for all.

Last night, they began a two-week stretch that includes 10 games against first-place clubs -- six against the Rangers, four against the New York Yankees.

"This could tell a lot," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. "We pretty much stumbled through the first 65 games. Now the moment of truth is here."

The Orioles went 1-8 against the Rangers and Yankees the first time around. A repeat performance would justify every nagging doubt about this team, and raise serious questions about its future.

No more excuses. Manager Davey Johnson doesn't want to hear them, nor does he want to use them. He gave himself a "C" for the first 60 games, but no longer is he a newcomer to this league.

Johnson admits that he miscalculated by trying Bonilla at DH, especially now that both Tony Tarasco and Jeffrey Hammonds are at Rochester. He admits that he misjudged his pitching staff. But he's past all of that.

His players should be, too.

Some are falling into line -- Hammonds handled his demotion like a champ, Mike Mussina stopped sniping at umpires, David Wells engaged in a healthy debate with Johnson over wanting to remain in a game.

Still, the Orioles' play at times is so lackadaisical, assistant general manager Kevin Malone questioned the team's intensity after it got swept at home by Chicago.

Here's a club that then went 4-3 in Detroit and Kansas City, yet still averages nearly a gripe a day. Beat a team with a winning record, then talk to us. Show resiliency for the first time in the '90s, then whine away.

The players change every season, but the rumblings of discontent continue. The Orioles soured on Johnny Oates, never liked Phil Regan. And now -- surprise! -- they're complaining about Johnson.

Maybe Peter Angelos should just hire Barney the dinosaur as his next manager, the better to keep the Orioles pretending instead of contending.

If Johnson is guilty of anything, it's a lack of tact, but who has

really suffered? Bonilla went back to the outfield and started producing. Even Ripken says that he turned up his game after Johnson discussed moving him to third.

The pitchers?

They have no case.

What's amazing is that Kent Mercker would feel comfortable enough to question Johnson for removing him from a game in which he fell behind 4-0 in the first and allowed 11 runners in 2 2/3 innings.

The players bristle at the slightest exertion of authority by Johnson, but is anyone willing to inform Mercker that he'd have a better argument if he could get somebody out?

Ripken is the obvious choice for such a task -- one look from the future Hall of Fame shortstop and such behavior would stop. No question, Ripken leads in his way, but apparently it's not his style to discipline teammates.

You can't ask him to change his basic nature, not after all these years. But Ripken should realize that he's the emotional center of this team, and that if he doesn't confront an out-of-line teammate, he's ultimately condoning him.

The issue is accountability. If Johnson is willing to admit his mistakes, then it certainly would be helpful if more players said, "I'm not getting the job done," the way Hammonds did yesterday.

Several weeks back, general manager Pat Gillick asked whether the nucleus of this team knows how to win. It was a fair question then, and it's a fair question now.

The Orioles are 26-9 against teams below .500, but only 10-20 against teams above. If the Texas games are important, next week's four-game series in New York is critical. The way things look, the wild-card team will come from the AL Central.

So, the Orioles need to play better, and Johnson believes they will -- "no question about it," he said. The bullpen was in disarray the last time they played the Rangers and Yankees. And the lineup had no pop from the right side with the switch-hitting Bonilla and Ripken struggling, along with Hammonds and Chris Hoiles.

Now, even with Armando Benitez out, Johnson has Alan Mills to complement Roger McDowell from the right side, and Arthur Rhodes to complement Jesse Orosco from the left.

The rotation is slowly coming together -- Scott Erickson allowed only one run in six innings before last night's game was postponed by rain, giving the Orioles four straight respectable starts.

And the offense is everything club officials envisioned -- the Orioles entered last night ranked fourth in the AL in runs, with only 10 fewer than league-leading Seattle in one fewer game.

Come September, the tumultuous start to this season might be viewed as a normal growing process for a stubborn, high-profile team with a stubborn, high-profile manager.

Or it might be viewed as the first sign that the Orioles are in need of an overhaul far more unpleasant and dramatic than anyone could have imagined.

No more excuses.

Put up or shut up -- now.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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