O's limp, not strut, into N.Y. Their lead is intact, but lineup decimated for big Yanks series

September 04, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- The Orioles arrived in New York early this morning, counting bodies instead of wins.

With a telling but not tell-all four-game series against the Yankees beginning tonight, the Orioles find themselves vulnerable, having lost five straight and clinging to a 6 1/2 -game lead thanks only to a three-game sweep of New York by Philadelphia.

Yes, the Orioles may retain the largest lead as well as the best record in the majors. But they also carry a lengthy list of nagging nicks and sprains that create a bedeviling conflict for the manager.

"The last three or four days, I've felt like I wasn't managing," Davey Johnson said. "I was just being a head nurse on a ward taking care of the retired soldiers and trying not to inflict more damage on the troops."

Johnson loves to maneuver personnel. His confidence in manipulating a roster gives him a clear advantage over the majority of his American League contemporaries, but the last several weeks have conspired to tie his hands.

Brady Anderson missed his second start in three games last night. Jeffrey Hammonds still is bothered by recurring soreness in an Achilles' tendon. Catchers Chris Hoiles and Lenny Webster are both limited by similar problems. The need for fresh legs is significant enough for the club to contact Eric Davis this week while he is at his brother's funeral in Los Angeles. Davis notified the team Tuesday that he plans to rejoin it Monday.

Second baseman Roberto Alomar has played only five innings since July 29, the result of a strained groin muscle that will almost certainly prevent him from playing the next four days.

And in the bullpen, left-handed workhorse Arthur Rhodes has a tender right side, Alan Mills has a sore groin and Armando Benitez appeared to strain his back last night. Though healthy, Terry Mathews has yielded runs in eight of his last nine appearances. "We've got so many guys nicked up or banged up, Davey's got to play the cards he's been dealt," said assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "We haven't played that well because Davey's been playing a lot of different people, trying to get people healthy."

The Orioles now play with a limp instead of a swagger. Without any speed, they've adopted a softball offense.

After last night's loss, they were hitting only .233 (117-502) with 58 runs in 15 games. Of those 58 runs, 35 had scored on 20 home runs.

Johnson sees a club in serious need of help. He met several times during the Marlins series with general manager Pat Gillick and Malone to petition for additional call-ups, but has so far been given no guarantees. With last night's combustible bullpen effort, things may change quickly as the club tries to sidestep a total burnout. Young left-hander Rick Krivda will start tonight's series opener. He has yet to pitch beyond 5 1/3 innings in any of his five starts.

Even when fresh faces arrive, they aren't really fresh.

Johnson was shocked to discover that Brian Williams arrived Monday having thrown 100 pitches in a Saturday start for Rochester. Williams' pitch load left him virtually unusable until last night, when he blew a 6-3 lead during an interminable sixth inning.

Meanwhile, Johnson was forced to hustle Shawn Boskie, last night's loser, into a tie game Monday though Boskie hadn't pitched since leaving the disabled list.

The bullpen ERA has risen from 2.67 to 2.93 over the five games prior to last night. It hasn't been higher since June 4.

"Right now our 'pen is taxed out," Hoiles said. "The last couple weeks it's started to show. Those guys have carried us a lot this year. But a lot of them aren't 100 percent now not even close."

Tuesday, in another tie situation, Johnson reluctantly used Mathews instead of Williams. Meanwhile, Esteban Yan and Nerio Rodriguez remain at Triple-A.

Tired of waiting, Johnson would like nothing better than to create enough cushion to begin resting regulars and toggling his rotation for October.

Others worry about a suspense-free finish.

"I always get concerned when you find yourself too far ahead and you lose that intensity," Malone said before last night's game. "I've always thought that teams struggled when they relaxed. It's good to get guys healthy and get your pitching lined up, but there's a fine line where you don't want guys to get too much rest or too relaxed."

The Orioles upset such a team last year when they unseated the defending AL champion Cleveland, which had crafted the league's best record. But the Orioles are a veteran team that has never been given time to heal itself.

Malone estimates a clinching around Sept. 20, with a week left, would allow the Orioles time enough to heal without developing rust. Maintaining their current lead would accomplish just that.

A pragmatic corner of the clubhouse believes escaping New York with a 6 1/2 -game lead would represent a significant step for a team trying to count healthy bodies. Others, among them Mike Mussina, see a danger in adopting a philosophy of maintenance.

"We can play .500 ball from here on out, win 100 games and be out in the first series. That's the last thing we want to happen," he said.

Johnson is torn. After leading the AL East since Opening Day, he hopes to keep his team healthy for October without giving away its first division title since 1983.

"It's important to win the division. That's what you play the season for," said Anderson, who dismisses talk of a wild-card berth being advantageous because of a first-round draw against the underachieving Indians. "You don't play 162 games to finish second. You play every game to win; you play the season to win. Injuries aren't an excuse."

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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