Patchwork heals what was ailing

September 05, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

NEW YORK -- You can tell by the lack of electricity at Yankee Stadium. You can tell by the standings, the clubhouse moods, the cool September air.

It's not over. But it's getting close.

You can tell when the Orioles beat the defending world champions with their fifth starter, a patchwork lineup and a reliever with a strained rib-cage muscle.

Orioles 5, Yankees 2.

You can tell where this is going now.

The Orioles' record against New York is 5-0. Their lead is 7 1/2 games with 25 to play. And in one stunning night, their charmed season regained its momentum.

The Yankees, on the other hand, have lost four straight and eight of their last 11. And unlike the Orioles, they can't point to injuries as an excuse.

Yes, they're without David Cone, but they gained only a half-game when the Orioles went 2-7, then faltered last night with every possible advantage.

"That was huge, very huge, very large, considering what had gone on us with the last nine days," Orioles first base coach John Stearns said.

The Orioles won with a pitcher who had averaged only 4 1/3 innings per start since his promotion from Triple-A.

They won with a third-string second baseman, a left fielder playing first base and a left-handed DH facing a left-handed pitcher.

They won without Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Hoiles in the lineup, and without any of their Big Three starters on the mound.

Heck, they won even after Davey Johnson out-managed himself, prodding the Yankees' Joe Torre into removing a wild Jeff Nelson in the eighth with the bases loaded.

Attention, Davey: Interleague play is over.

With one out, Nelson hit a batter and walked the next two. The next batter, cleanup man Geronimo Berroa, was 2-for-3 with a walk. But Johnson sent up Alomar, who has played only five innings since July 29 due to a groin strain.

Torre countered with left-hander Graeme Lloyd, prompting Johnson to hit Jerome Walton for Alomar. Walton then grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Davey's explanation?

One, Berroa had poor numbers against Nelson, and he was going to remove the right fielder for defense, anyway. Two, the manager wanted to get Alomar and Walton involved.

"Berroa's been great, but I want to integrate Robbie back, start Robbie thinking about playing," Johnson said. "It was just going to be a scare. I knew he [Torre] was going to get Lloyd."

Fortunately for Johnson, Jesse Orosco pitched a scoreless eighth, and Randy Myers followed with a scoreless ninth for his 41st save.

But the biggest inning was the seventh, when the aching Arthur Rhodes needed only seven pitches to escape a first-and-second, none-out jam.

It'll be interesting to see how the Yankees respond, not just in this series, but if the teams meet again in the postseason.

The Orioles are inside their heads now.

"You're losing to a team you hope to meet again in the postseason. You don't want them to develop an edge," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

Tonight, it's Jimmy Key against Andy Pettitte in a game the Orioles stand at least a decent chance of winning, considering the Yankees' 21-24 record against left-handed starters.

The final two pitching matchups -- Scott Erickson vs. Ramiro Mendoza tomorrow and Mike Mussina vs. Kenny Rogers Sunday -- are decidedly in the Orioles' favor.

If they win three out of four, their lead will be 8 1/2 games.

If they sweep, it will be 10 1/2 .

Heck, the worst it can be now is 4 1/2 -- and why should anyone expect the Orioles to lose the next three games when they've yet to lose to the Yankees this season?

A year ago, it was the Yankees who owned the rivalry. Including the American League Championship Series, they won 14 of 18 games -- and all nine at Camden Yards.

Several Yankees said the confidence they gained in the season series carried over to the postseason. They knew they could win at Camden after splitting the first two games of the ALCS -- they already had done it seven times.

But this season, it's the Orioles who can do no wrong.

They won the first four meetings earlier this season when the Yankees' bullpen was unsettled. And they won last night by cranking 12 hits in 6 2/3 innings against their former teammate, David Wells.

Johnson's most difficult task right now is finding healthy bodies, both to hit and pitch. The bullpen is so depleted, a brief outing by Krivda could have been disastrous. But Krivda pitched a season-high six innings.

And Johnson's delicate balancing act continued.

"It's the toughest thing right now," he said. "I could probably have won two of three games in Florida, but I may have hurt someone so he couldn't pitch the rest of the year.

"The No. 1 thing, the way I see it, is to be at full strength so we can play good the last three weeks of the season."

Frankly, the best thing for the Orioles might be to clinch the division early so they can rest their injured players.

Back in April, such a notion seemed inconceivable.

So much has changed since then.

You can tell where this is going now.

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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