Johnson closes doors, stokes the 'furnace' Manager deals with risk of team getting complacent


September 24, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.

TORONTO -- Davey Johnson admitted that yesterday represented an odd setting to conduct his first clubhouse meeting of the season. But since the playoff-bound Orioles are proving that these are indeed odd times, their manager shut the doors for about five minutes to remind his stumbling club of who they are, what they have accomplished and where they stand in the schedule.

Urging his veteran team "to take it to another level" with the New York Yankees closing rapidly in the American League East, Johnson suggested the strange sensation created by the wild-card safety net has created a motivational drag.

"We've been in the playoffs for two weeks or whatever," he said. "Two spots were clinched -- us and the Yankees. It was kind of like: 'What's this other thing?' I've never experienced this. You either get in or you don't. You don't get in twice. Everybody wants the division, from the ownership on down."

Yesterday's message was measured and upbeat; however, it also stressed the risk of complacency with the postseason a week away.

"We've had a great year, but now it's time. Let's go. We've been dominating our division all year. Let's throw a couple more logs in the furnace and put it away and get ready. We need to play the West. We don't need to be playing the Central," said Johnson.

Much has been made of an inequitable playoff format that does not reward dominance. Should the Orioles keep their lead, they presumably will face the dangerous Seattle Mariners, traveling two time zones after their regular-season finale in Milwaukee. Should the Yankees overtake them, the Orioles would play host in the first two games against the AL Central champion Cleveland Indians, who are perceived as vulnerable.

The Orioles' march toward a first division title in 14 years has slowed to a crawl. On Sept. 15, they became the first team to clinch a playoff berth but now find themselves struggling to lock up a division they led by nine games as recently as Sept. 13. They haven't won consecutive games since. The pitching staff entered last night with a 5.63 ERA for the month (203 IP, 127 ER), including a 6.85 ERA (71 IP, 54 ER) from the bullpen. While batting .269, the lineup has scored three or fewer runs 10 times.

"It's just kind of ironic that all of this started about the same time we clinched a spot. I'm not a firm believer that you can turn it on and off like a switch," said catcher Chris Hoiles.

The Orioles entered last night's start against Toronto Blue Jays ace Roger Clemens having lost nine of their last 14 games and in possession of a three-game lead, their smallest since May 17.

While he has "mixed and matched" lineups, Johnson has become concerned with the team's diminishing quality of play.

Johnson was especially irritated by Monday night's 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers, which concluded an uninspired 5-9 homestand. However, he reconsidered convening a postgame meeting to allow his temper to cool.

"I can't explain the way I'm feeling," Johnson said of his team's hazy status as a playoff team still facing another task in the regular season. "You want to rest guys because we're in the playoffs, and you want to be healthy because the object is to win the World Series. The object is not to be the second or third team to go wire to wire. Those things are nice, but they don't bring on the importance you think because they're just goals and records that in this case don't mean diddly."

Yet Johnson knows anything less than a division title will create a putrid taste entering the postseason. His players are committed not to let that happen.

"I think as we get closer to the playoffs you'll see an improvement," said infielder Jeff Reboulet. "Obviously, there has to be. It's getting late in the year. You need to start playing some ball. If we won 15 in a row, then we lost a couple right before we go into the playoffs, everybody would be talking about the last couple of games. If we lost 11 out of whatever and all of a sudden win five in a row, we're on a roll. Come see me in six games and maybe we'll know if we're ready or not."

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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