Wild card? O's need better hand

September 17, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Cal Ripken sat in the Orioles clubhouse yesterday ticking off the names of the Chicago starters in the 1983 championship series. LaMarr Hoyt. Floyd Bannister. Richard Dotson. Britt Burns. Names from the distant past.

That was the last time the Orioles reached the postseason. Division title, wild card, perhaps it shouldn't matter to this playoff-starved franchise. But it does matter, and it makes this Yankees series matter, more than anyone even imagines.

The Orioles have come too far, spent too much money and mortgaged too much of their future to settle for a wild card -- especially when their likely first-round opponent would be the Cleveland Indians.

Cleveland or Texas, that's what the Orioles and Yankees are playing for. A wild-card team from the AL East would draw the defending American League champions; the division winner, a club that has never reached the postseason.

The difference is enormous, especially now with the Rangers struggling to the wire in the AL West. Their regulars are tired, their starting pitchers are fading and they don't even have a closer.

Never mind that the Orioles went 3-10 against Texas this season -- they haven't played since June 26. The Orioles didn't have a bullpen then. They didn't have as balanced a lineup, either.

Few realize it, but the Indians scored even more runs against the Orioles than the Rangers, despite playing one fewer game. Granted, they never put 26 on the board. But they did reach double figures five times, winning the season series, 7-5.

That, too, means little.

The teams last met Aug. 5.

And the Indians, like the Orioles, are a better club now.

So, this series against the Yankees isn't just about Peter Angelos proving that he bought better toys than George Steinbrenner. It isn't even about holding off Chicago for the wild card. The Orioles need to take at least two of three so they're in position to win the AL East and avoid the Indians.

Indeed, for all they've accomplished, what will it mean if they win only the wild card, then get rocked by Cleveland? There's no guarantee they'll be this close again next season, not with

Bobby Bonilla, David Wells and Todd Zeile among their free agents.

Then again, there's also no guarantee that the Indians would defeat the Orioles in a five-game series. The Indians rank first in the league in hitting and first in pitching, but the Orioles are the team everyone fears right now.

Asked yesterday which club he'd rather face, the Orioles or the Yankees, Texas GM Doug Melvin said, "Ooooh, I don't know. From our standpoint, it doesn't matter."

But then Melvin all but made his preference clear.

"Obviously, the Orioles are on a roll, if you're looking at the two clubs," he said. "The Yankees are on the down side. They're both different ballclubs than we faced earlier in the year.

"Joe Torre managed them early like a National League club. They ran, they were aggressive. Now, it seems like they're trying to wait for [Darryl] Strawberry and [Cecil] Fielder to hit home runs. And it's not happening."

The Orioles?

"Their lineup is a lot more solid 1 to 9 than it was early on," Melvin said. "Their roles are defined more. I think Alan Mills coming back has helped them -- and [Armando] Benitez. They're a lot deeper in their bullpen."

Which, Orioles manager Davey Johnson believes, is the biggest difference between his current club and the one that was outscored by Texas, 90-54, in the season series.

Benitez, Terry Mathews and Archie Corbin weren't with the Orioles the last time they played Texas, and Mills hadn't returned to pre-surgery form. Roger McDowell was Johnson's only reliable option from the right side.

Johnson said the Orioles were just as imbalanced offensively, but they've since added Zeile, Pete Incaviglia and switch-hitter Eddie Murray for more right-handed pop.

The Rangers?

They're basically the same club.

Except now they're worn down.

Second baseman Mark McLemore, shortstop Kevin Elster and third baseman Dean Palmer each has appeared in more than 135 games, and suddenly ground balls are getting through the infield.

Before last night, the Rangers had committed 10 errors in their past seven games. Their starting pitchers had a 5.92 ERA in September. And few teams win in October without a closer.

Texas' biggest strength is the consistency of its rotation, but teams need hot starters in the postseason. Ken Hill, John Burkett, Roger Pavlik -- none of them scares you.

Not like Charles Nagy and Orel Hershiser, that's for sure.

The Indians lost Dennis Martinez and Jack McDowell, but who even noticed? Nagy and Hershiser are a combined 30-12. They would pitch four of the five potential first-round games.

Sorry, the Orioles wouldn't hit five homers a game against those two. Hershiser is 8-1 lifetime in the postseason. And Nagy had a 2.86 ERA in three postseason starts last year.

Offensively, the Indians subtracted Murray and Carlos Baerga, but now they've got Kevin Seitzer batting second and Jose Vizcaino producing adequately while making plays Baerga never did at second base.

This is still the team to beat in the American League, the team with Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle and Jim Thome, the team with the best bench and deepest bullpen.

The Orioles' mission is clear:

Win this series, catch the Yankees.

Win the division, avoid the Indians.

They've come from 12 games back.

Why settle for a wild card now?

Pub Date: 9/17/96

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