A little pitch makes a big difference

August 22, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

The Orioles need to make the playoffs for one very compelling reason. If they don't, they'll be wasting the greatest offensive season in club history.

The barrage continued last night at Camden Yards -- three more homers, 12 more hits, 10 more runs. It isn't likely to stop anytime soon.

Eighteen of the Orioles' final 37 games are against the teams with the three worst pitching staffs in the league -- Seattle, California and Detroit.

In fact, the remaining schedule includes only nine games against teams over .500. And suddenly, the Orioles are beating those teams, too.

Last night's 10-5 triumph over Seattle gave the Orioles their first series victory over a team with a winning record since May 17-19.

The nightly offensive eruption makes every game competitive, but almost to a man, the Orioles believe the difference now is pitching.

They don't need much.

And finally, they're getting it.

They're a half-game behind wild-card leader Chicago, five games behind AL East leader New York, and manager Davey Johnson believes even the bullpen is coming together.

Johnson has made such proclamations before, but the Orioles acquired workhorse right-hander Terry Mathews from Florida yesterday, and Mexican League import Archie Corbin provided a huge inning of relief last night.

Corbin, the former Reynosa Bronco, replaced Scott Erickson with a 6-5 lead in the seventh and got through the heart of the Mariners' order without incident, something the middle relievers weren't doing earlier this season.

When Bobby Bonilla followed with a three-run shot off Randy Johnson in the bottom half, the Orioles were on their way to their 16th victory in their last 22 games.

What's improved?

"Everything," catcher Chris Hoiles said. "Defense. Pitching. We've got a strong bullpen now, and we're scoring runs. When you've got that combination going, you're going to be tough to beat.

"We knew we could play like this, but winning breeds confidence. It doesn't matter what you're talking about. When we were starting to put together a winning streak, a lot of guys realized what we could do."

So here they are, the epitome of a team on a roll. The four-man rotation is working, even if Erickson blew a 5-1 lead last night. The bullpen will be stronger with Mathews, even if he had a 4.91 ERA in the National League.

Alan Mills is returning to pre-surgery form. Jesse Orosco keeps stringing together scoreless outings. Armando Benitez may return from the disabled list this weekend.

"There's an abundance of arms out there doing the job," Johnson said. "That's what's creating momentum for us as far as I'm concerned. The offense now feels if we do have a lead, we've got a chance to hold it."

It's a subtle psychological difference, and it creates less of a burden on the hitters. Combine that with the addition of Eddie Murray and emergence of Hoiles, and you've got the makings of a killer lineup.

Which is where the Orioles are right now.

They've hit 201 homers, 13 short of the club record set in 1985.

And they've scored 764 runs, just 54 short of the club mark, also set in '85.

How potent is the offense?

The Orioles have played one more game than the Yankees, but have scored 102 more runs. Obviously, pitching has been the difference between these clubs.

Johnson described the seventh-inning bridge as the Orioles' "Achilles' heel," and it will become critical again if the starters begin pitching fewer innings in the four-man rotation.

Still, with an offense like this, it doesn't always matter if you blow a 5-1 lead -- you just lead off the next inning with a homer, the way Cal Ripken did last night.

And with an offense like this, it doesn't always matter who is pitching against you -- it's curtains once the opponent makes a mistake, either in the field or on the mound.

The Mariners made two errors last night, leading to three unearned runs. The turning point came with none out in the seventh, and the Orioles leading, 6-5.

Rafael Palmeiro hit a double-play grounder to first. Paul Sorrento fielded the ball cleanly, but his throw to second hit Ripken in the back for an error.

Bonilla then crushed his 18th homer, and rather than nurse a one-run lead into the late innings, the Orioles won comfortably.

With an offense like this, maybe you can pound your way into the playoffs, and worry about the difficulty of scoring in October later.

The Orioles don't need a whole lot of pitching, just enough. They're putting together the greatest offensive season in club history. They can't let it go to waste.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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