After fine year, O's face large challenge Baseball: The Mariners and Randy Johnson are imposing opponents in the first round of the playoffs.

October 01, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- The Orioles recently became the sixth team in major-league history to spend every day of the regular season in first place. They won more games than any other team in the American League. They had a winning record against each of the other three teams that reached the playoffs.

And for what? The chance to open the best-of-five Division Series tonight on the road against the most intimidating pitcher in the game.

Seattle Mariners ace Randy Johnson (20-4) will take the mound tonight in Game 1 against right-hander Mike Mussina (15-8) and a hybrid Orioles lineup that may not include several of the club's top left-handed hitters. The series continues with Game 2 tomorrow at Seattle's Kingdome before moving to Camden Yards for Game 3 on Saturday and whatever other games are necessary to decide who advances to the American League Championship Series.

"Hopefully, it's the first step in a long run," Mussina said yesterday. "I've pitched against Randy twice this year already, and I've probably pitched against him a dozen times in my career. It's a challenge. He's obviously one of the most dominating pitchers in this game the last 25 years."

The other three division playoff series opened yesterday, but the schedule makers saved the most compelling Game 1 showdown for tonight. Johnson, one of three 20-game winners in the American League, will be looking for his first victory of the year against the Orioles, who accounted for two of his four regular-season losses and found a way to win each of the three games he pitched against them in 1997.

In fact, Johnson has had trouble with the Orioles throughout his career. His 3-7 lifetime record against Baltimore is his worst against any American League opponent.

That can mean one of two things:

The Orioles know something the rest of the league doesn't, or the law of averages is about to come crashing down on them and their hopes of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1983. Johnson would pitch again if the series went to Game 5.

"Tomorrow is a new day," Johnson said yesterday. "It's the postseason. I throw all those other games out."

The oddsmakers apparently agree with him. They have installed Johnson as a heavy favorite in tonight's game and the Mariners as a slight favorite to win the series.

The unfavorable morning line probably is based on the perception that the Mariners have the home-field advantage in the series, even though the two-on-the-road, three-at-home format was intended to favor the Orioles.

Orioles manager Davey Johnson isn't conceding anything, because his team was 5-1 at the Kingdome this year and had a better overall record on the road than at home. Mussina also has a favorable track record, entering tonight's game with an 8-1 career record against Seattle.

"I know that Randy Johnson is getting all the hype," said Davey Johnson, "but Mike Mussina is somebody I'd never bet against. I have all the confidence in the world in Mike Mussina."

The Orioles manager is expected to go with another unorthodox XTC lineup to counter left-hander Randy Johnson's overpowering stuff. He stacked the batting order with right-handed hitters each time the club faced Johnson during the season, and is not the type to abandon a winning formula.

"All of them want to be in there," Davey Johnson said of his regulars, "but I'm going to take what I think is my best opportunity."

The only left-handed hitter certain to be in the starting lineup is leadoff hitter Brady Anderson, who said he is looking forward to the challenge.

"When I retire from baseball," Anderson said, "my at-bats against Randy Johnson are going to be the ones I remember most."

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Pub Date: 10/01/97

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