Orioles stumble on road trip, but wins over N.Y. break fall

September 10, 1997|By John Eisenberg

CLEVELAND -- The Orioles are coming home in triumph from a road trip in which they won four of nine games, which pretty much sums up the current state of affairs at the top of the AL East standings.

With baseball's best record and an eight-game lead over the Yankees, the Orioles would seem to be swaggering toward a division title.

The reality of their situation is a little more modest.

Yes, they're on their way to a title -- but they're hardly swaggering.

They have won just six of their past 15 games after beating the Indians, 9-3, last night at Jacobs Field.

Their division lead is still as big as it is only because the Yankees are playing even worse, with just four wins in 13 games.

Both teams staged winning comebacks last night (the Yankees won in Boston), but they're still a combined 6-14 against everyone besides each other since Aug. 26.

It doesn't exactly summon memories of the Dodgers and Giants in 1951, does it?

The wild-card playoff berth has robbed baseball's most glamorous race of its energy and motivation, as both teams are all but guaranteed of making the postseason.

Lately, and with the notable exception of three games in New York, the Orioles often have played like a team with a guaranteed reservation for October -- a team with little left to gain in September.

They did almost everything wrong on this trip except when playing the Yankees, losing three straight to the Marlins and splitting two with the Indians.

Their pitching was spotty and their hitting was inconsistent, and they paid for their sins in a currency of defeat.

Yet, because they came through when it mattered in New York, their other recent failures are irrelevant.

"We rose to that occasion," Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds said last night. "We didn't have to beat the Marlins, but we did have to beat the Yankees. And we did. The result was a lot of space [in the standings]. The result was we don't have to win every game, unlike last year when we were driving for the playoffs."

Those three wins in New York are the reason the Orioles can come home in triumph after such an uninspiring road trip; they left town 10 days ago worried about protecting their division lead, lost five of nine games and still gained a grip on the division title.

Talk about timing your wins.

The Yankees aren't mathematically dead, but they're spending more time worrying about the Angels and the wild-card race than the Orioles.

The Yankees just have too many problems this year, what with the injuries to David Cone, Joe Girardi, Cecil Fielder and Luis Sojo; the disappointment of Hideki Irabu, whose big contract spawned widespread clubhouse discontent; and a middle relief corps that still isn't airtight.

As perfect as the Yankees were last season, they're just as flawed this season.

It's the Orioles who have ruled this season, but they're also dealing with problems as the playoffs near, which explains some of their recent slump.

Their biggest problem is Roberto Alomar's injured groin, which is taking a long time to heal, to say the least.

Alomar has been in manager Davey Johnson's lineup three times since returning to the roster, but he has yet to play beyond the sixth inning.

He did have three hits last night, the first indication that he might return to his All-Star form, but he's still tentative and it's hardly assured that he'll ever play at 100 percent again this year.

Another problem is the lingering ineffectiveness of Jimmy Key, who has been a .500 pitcher since June and hasn't won a game at Camden Yards since May 7.

The problem has been Key's lack of command, just a general loss of the control that has made him one of the game's most dependable pitchers.

Johnson said last night that Key and pitching coach Ray Miller have worked on an adjustment, reconfiguring Key's delivery to make his sinker bite more sharply.

"When he gets his sinker back, his command should come back with it," Johnson said.

The Orioles can only hope so; Key is 5-2 in the postseason and has won two World Series clinchers, and he's being counted on to deliver big in October.

The Orioles will be a lot more formidable in October with a healthy Alomar and an effective Key -- and a lot more vulnerable without them.

They'll need all their assets to offset a mediocre offense ranked ninth in the AL in batting average.

"The offense is kind of sputtering," Johnson said.

The nine runs they scored last night were a welcome sight, but they still need more consistent punch.

"We're not playing great, but we're not playing real badly, either, like we were in July, when we couldn't do anything right," Hammonds said.

The way the Yankees are going, that's more than enough.

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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