O's offense shows cracks at worst time

September 03, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

MIAMI -- It's a good thing for the Orioles that the New York Yankees also keep losing. Suddenly, the best team in baseball looks more vulnerable than it has all season.

Vulnerable enough to blow their 6 1/2 -game lead in the AL East? Probably not. But vulnerable enough to raise concerns about their ability to make a strong postseason run? Absolutely.

No one knows when Eric Davis and Roberto Alomar will return. Half the starting lineup is playing with nagging injuries. And now relievers Alan Mills and Arthur Rhodes also are day-to-day.

If the Orioles ultimately fall short, this strange, unsettling period will be remembered as the time when their troubles began -- and not just because they've lost five of their past six games.

Mills and losing pitcher Terry Mathews left the clubhouse without comment after last night's 3-2 loss to Florida in 10 innings. Other players appeared upset by manager Davey Johnson's late-inning manueverings.

General manager Pat Gillick downplayed the physical questions afterward, saying, "That's normal after 135-140 games. You're going to have guys banged up."

Still, the Orioles are concerned enough that they're exploring every opportunity to get Davis to rejoin the club as soon as possible. And the veteran outfielder hasn't played since May 24 after undergoing colon cancer surgery.

Davis flew home to Los Angeles two days ago following the death of his brother. No one knows whether he can make an impact. And his absence wouldn't be as noticeable if extra players weren't required in National League parks.

Still, the Orioles' belief that they need Davis is an indication that .. their anxiety level is rising. Victories the past two days would have stretched their lead over the Yankees to 8 1/2 games. But suddenly, they appear to be fading.

The Yankees' situation is just as disconcerting -- David Cone still isn't over his shoulder problems, and manager Joe Torre doesn't know which of his pitchers will start Saturday and Sunday against the Orioles.

But the Yankees aren't the issue.

No, the issue now is October.

Will the Orioles have enough offense? Will their bullpen be as deep?

Or will injuries prove their downfall?

Their lineup is shaky enough without Davis and Alomar. But those two players aren't the only ones with physical ailments now.

Brady Anderson is so banged-up, Johnson said he could use an entire series off. Jeff Reboulet, Jeffrey Hammonds, Chris Hoiles, B.J. Surhoff -- they're all playing with nagging injuries.

It showed last night. It has been showing for two weeks. The offensive highlight last night was a home run that existed only in the mind of first base umpire Bruce Froemming. As Johnson put it, "Everything had to go wrong for us not to win -- and it did."

There was Chris Hoiles hitting into an inning-ending double play on a 3-0 count. There was Reboulet twice failing to get down a bunt. And there was Hammonds getting picked off second in the same miserable sequence.

The Orioles' only runs came on Rafael Palmeiro's long fly off the right-field wall. Froemming inexplicably ruled it a two-run homer. Otherwise, the Orioles would have been shut out.

They've averaged 3.71 runs in their past 14 games, and they're lucky that their record in that time is 8-6. They could have stolen one last night. Instead, they suffered two more injuries -- Mills (groin) and Tony Tarasco (shin).

They failed to score with first-and-second and none out in the eighth, bases loaded with one out in the 10th. It might have been different, but the Orioles had two runners thrown out at the plate.

The first came in the second inning, when Mike Bordick bounced a single into right field with Hoiles at second and one out. Third base coach Sam Perlozzo waved Hoiles home, believing he could score on Marlins right fielder Gary Sheffield.

"I thought he had a legitimate shot," Perlozzo said. "[Sheffield] wasn't deep, and he wasn't shallow. The ball was a low roller. The second baseman had to dive for it. It was a little bit to the left of the right fielder."

But Sheffield threw Hoiles out by 10 feet, and the Orioles' lead stayed at 2-0. The play looked even worse when Mike Mussina grounded out to end the inning. Hoiles might have scored on the chopper.

Perlozzo was at it again in the seventh, sending Cal Ripken from second on a single to left by Bordick. With two outs, this decision was less questionable. Ripken was out at the plate, but on a play close enough for Davey Johnson to argue.

"That was almost an automatic, a no-brainer," Perlozzo said. "The only way that play could have possibly changed was if he hit a two-hopper right to the left fielder. With two strikes and two outs, once the ball strikes the bat, you go."

Was Perlozzo trying to force the action with the offense struggling?

"I don't think you can coach third base by saying you're not scoring runs. You end up doing things you shouldn't do," he said. "I have confidence in the hitters. Davey does. Everyone else does."

There's no reason to lose confidence yet.

Is there?

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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