Off the wall as they are, O's have shot

September 30, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- After clinching their wild-card berth in the American League playoffs Saturday, the Orioles celebrated harder in the clubhouse than some teams have celebrated after winning the World Series.

They doused beer, champagne and ice all over each other and anyone who dared approach them, rockin' and rollin' for a good 45 minutes.

Was it 13 years of playoff-less frustration pouring out? Hardly. Many of the players had worn an Orioles uniform for less than two years.

Was it that they knew, in the backs of their minds, that they probably wouldn't get another chance to celebrate?

That makes more sense with the Cleveland Indians in their playoff path beginning tomorrow at Camden Yards, but it probably wasn't the reason, either.

Who knows why they went bonkers beyond all reason for a second-place team?

"It's an unpredictable team," HTS analyst Mike Flanagan said in the steam-cleaned clubhouse yesterday before the last game of the regular season.

And that unpredictability is precisely why the Indians aren't a dead-solid lock in the best-of-five series.

As much as it would be a monumental upset for the Orioles to knock the defending American League champs out of the playoffs, they do have a chance.

"Cleveland is the best team in the league, but we probably match up best with them [out of the other three teams in the AL playoffs]," manager Davey Johnson said yesterday.

True enough.

The Indians obviously are the superior team, with more stable pitching, more depth and speed, a multi-dimensional offense (unlike the Orioles), a dominant closer in Jose Mesa and two MVP types in Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton.

There are a dozen reasons why the Indians should win the series, and it doesn't help that Mike Mussina will start only once because the Orioles piddled around last week and needed him to clinch the wild-card spot Saturday.

But there also are a few reasons why the Orioles do have a chance.

"I know Cleveland will be a heavy favorite, but I see it being fairly close," Flanagan said.

There are baseball reasons and psychological reasons supporting his position.

"For starters, the Orioles have Eddie Murray now and the Indians don't," Flanagan said. "And I'm sure Eddie has a lot of insight into their pitchers and hitters. That'll be huge."

It also helps that the Indians, unlike Texas and New York, won't use a left-handed starter. The Orioles were one game under .500 against lefty starters in '96.

Plus, the Orioles do have a left-handed starter in David Wells and a lefty-dominated bullpen led by Jesse Orosco and Randy Myers. Lefties bother the Indians almost as much as they bother the Orioles.

If Arthur Rhodes is able to go, Johnson could start using bullpen lefties as early as the sixth inning.

"I think we can compete out of the bullpen a lot better than we did earlier in the season when they were dominating us," Johnson said. "Our bullpen is just better now, period."

Does it match the Indians bullpen? No. But the Indians bullpen isn't as reliable as it was a year ago, either.

"It's not a done deal when you get to the bullpen anymore," Flanagan said. "And Mesa isn't the Mesa of last year."

The same can be said of the whole Indians team, Flanagan said.

"To me, they're just not as good as they were last year," he said. "They're not as good hitting-wise. And the Orioles are better than they were last year and earlier this year. You never know what they're going to do, but that's what makes them dangerous. And there is nothing tougher than a dangerous underdog."

Especially against a favorite with a lot to lose.

You might think the big pressure is on the Orioles to make good on their $48 million price tag after a disappointing regular season, but the big pressure is on the Indians.

After losing to the Atlanta Braves in the World Series last year, they're in a "win it all or bust" mode this year.

"Only a World Series championship will satisfy them," Flanagan said. "It's never easy to play in those conditions."

It all makes tomorrow's first game critically important for the Orioles.

That underlying pressure on the Indians would come into play if the Orioles were to get ahead in the series and raise the possibility of an upset.

As well, Wells is the Game 1 starter, and it is imperative that the Orioles take advantage of their left-hander starter.

Basically, the Orioles have to follow the following three daily rules to have a chance:

1. Get quality starting pitching. The Orioles' fortunes have risen and fallen with their inconsistent starters all season.

2. Keep Lofton off the basepaths. "Make Belle hit solo homers," Flanagan said.

3. Take leads no later than the seventh inning. As diminished as the Indians bullpen might be, you can't expect to beat the Indians coming back on them.

"It could happen," Flanagan said. "That's not to say it will, not at all. But it doesn't take much to change things in a short series like this. If the right Orioles team shows up, it'll be close."

Pub Date: 9/30/96

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