Can O's flick on switch in playoff glare?

September 24, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

Sorry to make you choke on your first cup of coffee this morning, but here's a shocking statistic:

The Orioles are only seven games over .500 since completing their sweep of the Braves on June 15.

That's right, they're just seven games over .500 during the past 15-plus weeks, a period of more than 90 games.

In other words, they aren't just encountering a little slump as they try -- and try again -- to finish off the Yankees and win the American League East.

They haven't been playing division-winning baseball for more than three months.

The Yankees have a better record during that time, as do the Mariners and Indians.

So much for the notion that the Orioles are a strong favorite to cruise through the playoffs and win the AL pennant.

They were a strong favorite when they were dominating the league in the first half of the season, but not anymore.

They are just another contender now, their chances resting on the answer to an unsettling question:

Can they turn it back on?

Having meandered through more than half of the season, can they now just reach out, flick a switch and recapture the magic that carried them earlier?

Hardly a comforting question.

There's no guarantee it will happen, that's for sure.

"You never know," pitcher Scott Erickson said late Monday night, after the Orioles had blown a lead to the Tigers and lost their last home game of the regular season. "Maybe the adrenalin [of being in the playoffs] will get people started and take it to a higher level. We certainly need it."

In their defense, they were so dominating early in the season that they removed a lot of their motivation; that they were headed for the playoffs was apparent before the All-Star break.

"We won the war early," manager Davey Johnson said Monday night, "the war being a trip to the playoffs."

That might partly explain a lull setting in, but the sleepwalking started getting out of hand a long time ago.

The Orioles have won only 10 of their past 26 games, and, as part of a prolonged withdrawal from success, their overall confidence has suffered.

"Is the team approaching the postseason with the same [confident] attitude it had earlier in the season?" someone asked Erickson.

"Probably not," he said.

What has happened is no secret, of course: The pitching hasn't held up.

Yes, their team batting average has dropped 10 points since the sweep of the Braves, but let's face it, the Orioles are an average offensive team and they aren't going to win or lose because of their bats.

They're built on a foundation of pitching, and even though they still have the league's second-lowest team ERA, they haven't pitched nearly as well over the past three months as they did earlier.

The Big Three of Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key and Scott Erickson were a combined 28-4 after the sweep of the Braves, but they're a combined 19-20 since then.

Key, in particular, has faded, going 5-9 since his 11-1 start.

Average starting pitching leads to average results.

"Part of that [prolonged mediocrity] is just reality," catcher Lenny Webster said Monday night. "We were playing .700 baseball, and you can't keep that up.

"Still, we have to do better; there's no question. We have to find a way to turn it back on. And the good news is that we have done it all year."

He's right. All season, the Orioles have risen to major occasions such as games against the Yankees and Braves, leaving the impression that they are, indeed, capable of turning on their "A" game.

As much as they haven't done anything in the past month, they did win those three games against the Yankees in New York, turning the division race into a rout.

"We're a veteran team," pitcher Jesse Orosco said. "I feel like we know how to win."

But Orosco, who won a World Series ring with the Mets in 1986, also offered a note of caution.

"We have to confront what's been going on lately," he said. "We have to get it going again and start playing better. You can finish 25 games ahead of someone during the season, but all that matters in the playoffs is who gets hot."

Right now, the Orioles are about as hot as the going-nowhere Tigers.

As a matter of fact, they have the same record as the Tigers since mid-June.

"Maybe when we clinch [the division title], we'll start picking it up again," Erickson said. "No one celebrated in here when we clinched a playoff spot, because our goal all year has been to win the division. And yet, at the same time, we have known for a long time that we're in the playoffs. It's kind of a weird position. That's no excuse for the way we have played. But maybe winning [the division] will refocus things."

Something had better come along and help them regain their magic.

Better pitching from Key, for instance.

More consistency from Erickson.

More consistency from the tired bullpen.

Unless all those wrongs are righted, the Orioles are in trouble.

Can they turn it back on?

It's not the kind of question you want in the air as the playoffs begin.

2nd-half news

How the American League's probable postseason teams have fared since the All-Star break, in August and in September:

..... Since break ..... Aug. ..... Sept.

O's ... 40-32 ......... 18-10 .... 10-14

NY .... 43-29 ......... 18-11 .... 12-11

Cle ... 40-35 ......... 16-14 .... 14-9

Sea ... 40-31 ......... 15-15 .... 14-7

* -- late game

September switch

Unless they sweep their final five games, this will be the first year that the Orioles make the postseason while posting a losing record in September. The Orioles' September records during postseason years:

Year, Record, Pct.

1997, 10-14, .417

1996, 16-11, .593

1983, 20-11, .645

1979, 15-12, .556

1974, 25-6, .806

1973, 21-11, .656

1971, 20-9, .690

1970, 22-7, .759

1969, 18-10, .643

1966, 14-14, .500

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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