Forget spin: N.Y. series, title matter

September 04, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

MIAMI -- Before last night's game, Rafael Palmeiro said the Orioles would be fine if they split their remaining eight games with New York.

They might not even need to win that many.

A night that began with an excellent chance of the Orioles' lead reducing to 5 1/2 games ended with it staying at 6 1/2 .

They can drop four straight at Yankee Stadium and still lead by 2 1/2 -- and they're not going to lose four straight to a team that just got swept by the Phillies.

The New York spin will be that the Yankees would rather face a weak AL Central champion than a strong AL West winner in the first round.

But that's losers' talk.

From owners to general managers, scouts to players, the goal is not to win the wild card, but the division title.

Yes, first place matters -- especially to a city as baseball-crazed and New York-obsessed as Baltimore.

Fourteen years, that's how long Orioles fans have waited for their team to return to the top of the AL East.

Fifty-five million, that's how much owner Peter Angelos spent on players for the sole purpose of beating George Steinbrenner and the hated Yankees.

Everyone knows that the playoff format is ridiculous, with the AL East champion likely to face a more difficult first-round test than the wild card.

But the Orioles need to beat the best teams to reach the World Series, regardless of which one is their first opponent.

And they need to put away the Yankees.

Finishing second would enable the Orioles to open at home against the AL Central winner, but it also would mean they staggered to the end of the season.

They're working on it, with losses in five straight, six of their last seven and seven of their last nine games. Indeed, they'd be in full panic mode, if the Yankees weren't struggling just as mightily.

Suddenly, even Davey Johnson is slumping.

On a night the manager needed to save his bullpen, he pulled Scott Kamieniecki after five innings, and the Orioles blew a three-run lead in a 7-6 loss to the Florida Marlins.

Kamieniecki had thrown only 93 pitches, retired the side in order in his final inning. Johnson replaced him with the just-promoted Brian Williams, who was pitching three days after a 100-pitch start in Rochester.

The results were disastrous.

The Marlins batted around against Williams in the sixth, scoring three times to tie the score, 6-6. Gary Sheffield hit the game-winning homer off Shawn Boskie in the ninth to complete the sweep for the Marlins.

The Kamieniecki move was highly questionable for two reasons -- the game was under control, and Johnson might need innings out of his bullpen with Rick Krivda starting the series opener in New York tonight.

The Yankees are in even worse shape, but pitcher Mike Mussina is so worried about the Orioles' play, he said before last night's game that he no longer is checking the standings.

"Honestly? In the last two weeks, I haven't thought about it," Mussina said. "I'll tell you why -- we haven't played well enough to make it through the playoffs, whether we win a division or a wild card.

"Everyone knows we have a very good chance to be in the playoffs. Everyone understands that. But once the four teams are set, everything starts over, you have to win games.

"We're not playing well enough right now to win a playoff series, I don't think. My main concern is for us to play better baseball so we're on a positive note when the playoffs get here."

And so tonight they play the first game of the rest of their season, in the stadium made famous by Babe Ruth and then Little Jeffrey Maier.

Their opponent is not just the defending world champions, but 50,000 barbarians at the gates, waiting to pounce at the first sign of weakness.

Trust us, Steinbrenner wants to win.

And trust us, the Yankees do too, no matter how much they might relish the thought of playing a Cleveland instead of a Seattle.

"That's a great problem to have -- winning the division," Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken said, smiling.

It's a problem the Orioles desired through the dark years of the late 1980s, through periods dominated by the Blue Jays and Yankees in the '90s.

This season is the culmination of a recovery that began under former manager Johnny Oates in '92, and accelerated under Angelos' committed ownership.

The Orioles are attempting to become only the third American League team to be in first place all season, joining the 1927 Yankees and '84 Tigers.

They were 2 1/2 games out last Sept. 15, but lost to the Yankees. They reached the American League Championship Series, but lost to the Yankees.

Chris Hoiles, for one, believes this time will be different.

"We're not playing very well right now in all phases of the game," Hoiles said. "But we're not going to play like that through the whole month of September, I can guarantee you that. It's best to get it out of the way now."

The '83 world champions, remember, endured two seven-game losing streaks -- from May 20-26 and Aug. 6-12. But that club went on a 33-9 run after Aug. 17. This one is fading.

And so this series matters, more than it should considering the size of the Orioles' lead, more than the critics of the playoff format believe, more than anyone imagined.

"The month of September is almost like the fourth quarter in football," Hoiles said. "It's time to suck it up and win the game."

Pub Date: 9/04/97

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