East rivals aren't locks for ALCS

September 15, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

The Orioles lost four of their last five games against the Yankees, but what did it matter? This great rivalry that lost meaning in September might not even resume in October.

Logically, the teams with the best records in the American League still figure to meet in the ALCS. But there's no guarantee the Orioles would beat Seattle in a Division Series, and even less of a guarantee the Yankees would defeat Cleveland.

Indeed, with the status of David Cone so uncertain, Orioles-Indians might be more of an ALCS preview than Orioles-Yankees -- assuming, of course, that the Orioles resolve their rapidly mounting bullpen problems.

It's not likely to happen in back-to-back split doubleheaders against Cleveland the next two days, not when Esteban Yan, Rick Krivda, Nerio Rodriguez and Jimmy Key are the scheduled starters.

Thus, manager Davey Johnson made a questionable move last night, removing Scott Kamieniecki after five innings. Kamieniecki had thrown only 77 pitches. At the time, the Orioles trailed, 3-1.

Johnson said he was trying to protect Kamieniecki, who left his previous start with forearm stiffness. But Kamieniecki was visibly upset in the dugout after being informed of the decision. He said afterward that he felt "fine, no problem." And besides, how much is he going to pitch in the postseason, anyway?

"With the problem he had in Cleveland -- that's a sign of him having a tired arm -- I didn't want to push him," Johnson said. "Kammy is too valuable to me to let him go out there and throw 100 pitches."

Kamieniecki conceded, "Sometimes you lose a battle, but win a war. Maybe that's the case here." The problem is that Johnson couldn't win one battle without losing another. He wound up using five relievers, and the Orioles got hammered, 8-2.

All season, the bullpen has been the strength of this team, but suddenly it's in danger of becoming a weakness. In the past 13 games, the relievers are 0-5 with an 8.58 ERA.

"Nobody's really overworked," Johnson said. "I don't think anyone is really tired or laboring. If we get a good-pitched game, that makes it easy. But if we don't, I haven't been abusing Orosco, Rhodes or Benitez, or Mills or Mathews."

Perhaps, but the Yankees scored 36 runs in their four games at Camden Yards, despite getting only one in Saturday's game. The Orioles need not worry with a 6 1/2 -game lead. Frankly, the Yankees aren't in a comfortable position, either

Indeed, it's difficult to imagine the Yankees beating the Indians if Cone remains sidelined with a sore right shoulder. And even if the 34-year-old right-hander returns, who's to say he'll pitch effectively?

A source close to Cone told the New York Daily News that the pitcher was "scared to death" of his immediate future. Informed of that remark yesterday, Cone said, "I wouldn't say that, but certainly I'm concerned."

The earliest he could return is a week from today. He is scheduled to pitch a simulated game Wednesday. After that, the Yankees again will re-evaluate him.

"I'm really confident that after the next test Wednesday I'll start a game, one way or another," Cone said. "I might not get anybody out, but I'll start a game."

How's that for confidence?

Without Cone, Andy Pettitte would pitch Game 1 and perhaps come back on three days' rest for Game 3. Or, he could start 1 and 4, with David Wells going in 2 and 5 and Dwight Gooden pitching the middle game.

Wells isn't exactly appealing behind Pettitte, not when he has lost five consecutive starts. And as well as Gooden pitched last night, manager Joe Torre would prefer that his Game 3 starter had better than a 5.04 ERA.

The Yankees need Cone.

"He brings a lot to the table," the Orioles' Johnson said. "Pitching big games is something he's done a lot. I think they've got some options that are decent, but nothing like if you've got Cone."

For his part, Cone senses the urgency, describing his plight as "a race against the clock." The Yankees have the same 84-63 record they had at this point last season.

But they don't have Cone.

"We all have an understanding that we have a chance to defend our championship," Cone said. "We also understand that we could easily go down to a team as good as us or better, including Baltimore.

"Anything can happen in the playoffs. We can get back to the World Series, or we can be beat. It may be one game that makes or breaks our season, as far as the postseason goes."

Cone wants to pitch that game. Cone wants to pitch every game. But after years of high pitch counts and 200-inning seasons, he might finally be wearing down.

The Orioles always considered the Yankees their biggest obstacle, both in the regular season and postseason.

They added Jimmy Key, diversified their offense and strengthened their bullpen, all with the idea of overtaking their biggest rivals.

They'll accomplish half their task when they win the division.

Beyond that, who knows?

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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