O's finish: dead end or fresh start? Sluggish September allows time to heal, but momentum is question

First-half form desired

1-8 at home since May, Key looms as concern

September 30, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- For a long time, the Orioles had it. Then, they lost it. Now, they say it's an illusory thing that doesn't really matter under these circumstances.

Momentum.

More than any other team this postseason, the Orioles will serve as a study for how much momentum means. The club struggled during the season's final month, yet still became the sixth team in big-league history to lead its league or division from the schedule's first day to its last.

A year ago, the Orioles had momentum, worked it for a wild-card berth and found themselves possibly a fan interference call away from reaching their first World Series since 1983.

This year, they led the American League East by 9 1/2 games on Sept. 6, appeared to grow bored and finished with a two-game lead over the New York Yankees. Three weeks after they cradled the majors' biggest lead, they ended the season tied for its smallest.

"This is kind of a different situation," says third baseman Cal Ripken. "You've got two days between our last regular-season game and the playoffs. Even if you believe in momentum as a factor, it's a very difficult thing to carry that over two days off."

Manager Davey Johnson agrees. He has seen firsthand how transitory momentum can be even once a series begins.

In 1988, his New York Mets were overwhelming favorites to defeat the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Mets won Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, prompting Game 2 starter David Cone to use his guest column in a New York tabloid to poke fun at the Dodgers lineup. The Dodgers got even by ripping Cone the next day before winning the series and eventually a world championship.

"Momentum can turn on one pitch," Johnson says. "We're going to try to create some of our own momentum."

The Orioles constructed a 13-16 September -- their only losing month this season -- and finished the season with four consecutive losing weeks before a final 4-3 surge. (They had three losing weeks entering September and one during the season's entire first half.)

While Johnson "mixed and matched" his lineup, they finished 10-13 after Sept. 6 and managed only two sets of back-to-back wins in the season's final 22 days.

Johnson's late tinkering included playing Jerome Walton at first base and alternating catchers Chris Hoiles and Lenny Webster to allow both time to heal injuries. Still hobbled by a groin pull, second baseman Roberto Alomar asked to play his way into shape. His limited range directly contributed to at least two losses, but he has made obvious progress. A brutal late schedule also forced Johnson to start Triple-A call-ups Esteban Yan and Nerio Rodriguez, though Rodriguez impressed.

"If we don't play like we did in the first half of the season, we're going to be reading about the next series," says Game 3 starter Jimmy Key. "I don't think anyone in here thinks we've been playing that well lately.

"I've been to Seattle before, and it's not that easy to win there. I look at myself, and I'm not pitching that well. And there are some other guys that aren't playing well, either. To win in the postseason, we have to play like we did in the first half of the season."

Key may have to pitch like he did in the first half. He represents the biggest question within what seemed an invulnerable rotation before the All-Star break.

Key will start at Camden Yards, where he turned last October's American League Championship Series for the Yankees with a gutty Game 3 outing opposite Mike Mussina. Since May 7, he is 1-8 at home. He has pitched at least six innings in only three of his last nine starts.

Key, Mussina and Game 2 starter Scott Erickson stormed through the first half with a combined 28-4 record and 3.19 ERA. In the second half, they were a combined 19-21 with a 3.62 ERA.

The Big Three certainly pitched well enough to deserve a winning record after the All-Star break. However, their mark also reflects an offense that never quite caught. Entering the Division Series, the club continues to wait on Ripken to emerge from a profound slump.

The bullpen hasn't been immune, either. In the past 29 games, relievers went 4-7 with only five saves while yielding a 6.00 ERA. Overall, the bullpen boasted a 3.35 ERA, 33-24 record and 59 saves.

Though concern exists within some quarters whether focus has been sacrificed in order to rehabilitate nicked players, no one is minimizing a 98-win season.

"This team was the best team in the American League this year, and it has the record to back it up," says assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "This is a veteran team. It's a confident team. They've shown that this year in big series. I think everyone is confident they'll show it again in Seattle. I know I am."

Hoiles doesn't see this team as a light switch to be toggled on command. However, he does speak of an undercurrent of confidence able to overcome an abbreviated trend.

"I don't know if it's right to say this team can dial it up any time it wants," Hoiles says. "If that was true, we'd do it every day. I just think this season has been a grind for a lot of guys. We've been through a lot. After we clinched a playoff spot, I think guys wanted to make sure they were as healthy as possible for what's next."

O's vs. Mariners

AL Division Series

(Best of five)

Date Site .. .. .. Time .. TV

Tom. Seattle .. . 8: 07 .. 11

Mussina (15-8, 3.20)

vs. Johnson (20-4, 2.28)

Thu. Seattle .. . 4: 07 . #13

Erickson (16-7, 3.69)

vs. Moyer (17-5, 3.86)

Sat. Orioles .. . 4: 07 .. 45

Key (16-10, 3.43)

vs. Fassero (16-9, 3.61)

Sun. Orioles* . . 4: 07 . ESPN

.. .. or .. .. .. 7: 30 .. 45

Mussina

vs. Cloude (4-2, 5.12)

Mon. Orioles* . . 4: 07 . ESPN

.. .. or .. .. .. 8: 11 .. 45

Erickson vs. Johnson

#-also ESPN. *-if necessary. If the Indians- Yankees series is over, games 4 and 5 would have the later starting times.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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