O's armed to prevent 26-7 repeat

April 16, 1997|By John Eisenberg

It was almost exactly a year ago that the Orioles left town with an 11-2 record after a successful homestand, headed to Texas and saw their world disintegrate in the form of a 26-7 loss to the Rangers.

They weren't the same for months after that horrifying defeat, which illuminated their many pitching weaknesses; they played sub-.500 ball and fell out of the playoff picture until making a late rush.

"That [26-7] game, that was as bad as it gets," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said last night. "I don't like to reflect on the past too much and that game really brings back bad memories."

Like it or not, the Orioles are back at almost precisely the same point today, starting a road trip after a successful early-season homestand that ended with last night's 3-1 defeat of the Twins.

The Orioles are 9-2, with six games in Chicago and Boston coming up.

There's no telling what they'll do, but there won't be any 26-7 losses to start them on a long swoon.

A year later, their pitching staff is sounder, stronger and better, particularly the bullpen.

It's the biggest reason why this year's Orioles won't disintegrate, as last year's did for so long after that unforgettable night in Texas.

"What a difference a year makes," Johnson said.

That's not to say these Orioles won't slump or endure big losses, as all teams do.

But their deep bullpen is a strong insurance policy against long-term fits of sleepwalking, such as the one that started in Texas last year.

Randy Myers, Arthur Rhodes, Armando Benitez, Jesse Orosco, Terry Mathews and Alan Mills give Johnson many more options in relief than he had last year.

"This is one of the best bullpens I've ever been part of," said Orosco, who has been part of many in 15-plus seasons in the majors.

Orosco had the toughest night of all in that 26-7 loss, of course, allowing eight runs and six hits as the Rangers scored 16 runs in the eighth.

He rebounded to have another strong season at age 39, and laughed last night at the memory of his bad night.

"[Then-pitching coach Pat] Dobson came out [to the mound] and asked me, 'Are you OK' " Orosco said. "I told him, 'I'm fine, I just can't get them out. I've tried everything and I just can't do it.' "

According to Orosco, catcher Chris Hoiles jokingly asked if he had anything in his back pocket, the better with which to doctor the ball, get an out and end the nightmare.

"I'm empty back there [in his pocket], too," Orosco told Hoiles.

He had nothing on the ball, but Johnson left him in because there was no one else to turn to; Mills was out with a strained flexor muscle, Benitez had injured his elbow earlier in the game, Rhodes was still coming back from shoulder surgery and Roger McDowell had already pitched.

The fact that Orosco had to stay in -- until Johnson finally replaced him with Manny Alexander -- was emblematic of the weak bullpen that caused Johnson so many problems until late in the season.

"I was shocked at the lack of [bullpen] depth when I got here last year," Johnson said. "I had expected a lot more. I didn't have anyone who was used to coming in and stopping someone. I had to settle all the time for bad matchups that worked against us, which is a terrible situation. And you saw the result. We couldn't play .500 ball."

It didn't help that they lost 13 games after being tied or ahead after seven innings.

The returns of Mills and Benitez, plus the addition of Mathews -- acquired from the Marlins in a trade -- improved the situation considerably late in the season.

The Orioles brought back all six relievers this year, a group so strong that the short-term absence of Mills -- placed on disabled list yesterday with a pinched nerve in his shoulder -- didn't faze Johnson yesterday.

"I still have Benitez and Mathews [as right-handers]," Johnson said. "When I lost McDowell [to an injury] last year, I didn't have diddly."

The starting rotation also is sounder, with Jimmy Key replacing David Wells, and Scott Kamieniecki and Shawn Boskie replacing Kent Mercker and Jimmy Haynes.

"Those two [Mercker and Haynes] were still trying to establish themselves in this league at this point last season," Johnson said.

And failing to do so.

Kamieniecki and Boskie have 79 combined major-league wins between them.

"The whole pitching staff is just stronger," Orosco said.

Someone different has carried the bullpen almost every night; last night it was Rhodes, who came on for Kamieniecki and threw three perfect innings, striking out five.

"How about Arthur? I love Arthur," Johnson said.

Having completed an undefeated homestand, the players dressed and headed for their charter to Chicago with a record almost identical to last year's fine start -- a start that soon proved illusory in the wake of a crushing defeat in Texas.

But that history won't be repeated, Johnson said.

"This start is different," Johnson said. "Last year I was worried [because of the pitching]. I was having trouble sleeping. Believe me, things are different this year."

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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