Orioles have healthy need last 3 weeks

September 09, 1997|By John Eisenberg

CLEVELAND -- The hard part of their season is behind them.

An even harder part lies ahead, in October.

Where does that leave the Orioles now?

In the midst of a September lull made possible by their big lead over the Yankees.

Suddenly, they're just marking time until the playoffs.

It's an enviable position, but the Orioles need to make sure they handle it the right way.

As with everything else in baseball, there's a tricky part.

The Orioles' goal for the last three weeks of the season is to get healthy and ready for the playoffs -- a process that took a tentative step in the right direction with Roberto Alomar's brief return last night in a 2-1 loss to the Indians at Jacobs Field.

Alomar left again after 5 1/2 innings because of stiffness in his sore groin, and although it was deemed a minor setback and he's expected to be available again tonight, let's see him play a whole game before we mark any progress.

In any case, it was the major development of the night -- certainly more important than the loss.

"Getting everyone healthy [for the playoffs], that's the most important thing now," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said before the game.

But if the Orioles are temporarily putting their health ahead of their won-lost record, they have to make sure they don't ease up so much that they lose the sharp edge that has carried them to baseball's best record.

History is full of teams that played from so far ahead for so long that they fell asleep, or seemed to, and got crunched in October.

Remember what happened to the Indians a year ago?

After dominating the AL Central all season and finishing in first by 14 1/2 games, they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Orioles.

No one will ever know if they were softened up by their cruise through September, but they certainly looked like a team that had slept through a wake-up call.

Of course, history also is full of teams that dominated during the season as the Indians did a year ago and then rolled just as easily through October.

The lesson? There is no guidebook for handling a cushy lead in September -- baseball's version of the Big Easy -- and there certainly aren't any signs indicating which teams are going to be susceptible to the trap it presents. Either you are or you aren't, basically -- and if you are, you won't know until it's too late.

Where do the Orioles fit into all of this?

They certainly have dominated, carrying the majors' biggest divisional lead as they close in on a wire-to-wire title -- only the third in AL history.

It's the right time to ease up, and the Orioles might a little, but, Johnson said, they won't ease up to the point that they fall asleep down the stretch.

The manager sat in his office in the visitors' clubhouse last night and virtually laughed at the idea that the Orioles might get caught up in the trap of a cruise to the AL East title.

"How are we going to lose our edge at this point, after seven months of going as hard as we have gone?" he said. "This club just doesn't work that way. We're not made up that way. All year, I've had guys fighting to stay in the lineup, not the other way around."

He's right, of course; Cal Ripken never comes out, Brady Anderson hates to come out and the team's general tone is one of pushing as hard as possible.

It's hard to imagine them giving in to the temptation of a few easy weeks.

"As a matter of fact, I'm not sure you'll see any difference in these last few weeks," Johnson said. "It's not like we have the division title wrapped up, anyway. We're ahead, but we still have to play it out."

Johnson said the knockout of the Yankees this past weekend in New York actually invigorated the club instead of giving it reason to pause.

"It's the other guys [down in the standings] who are starting to play out the string now," he said. "They're the ones starting to feel the effects of the long season of injuries and weather and travel. When you're in our position, it's different. This is what you play for, this feeling. This is the best. When you're in this position, you can't wait to get to the ballpark and play."

As for whether he might manage differently because of the big lead in the standings, Johnson shrugged.

"Maybe in certain situations," he said. "I call it preventive management. You want to make sure certain guys are healthy [for the playoffs]. But overall, it's pretty much the same style [of managing]. No matter what time of year it is, you're always having to find places to play the [players on the] bench to keep them fresh."

There was no evidence of any change in his style or the Orioles' intensity last night; they managed only six hits in their loss to the Indians, but Johnson rode the bullpen as hard as ever and the game was hard-fought and October-style tight.

It's all you can ask for as the Orioles cruise through a suddenly low-key September with their minds slowly turning to the playoffs.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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