Orioles had edge, still can cut it Challenged, team can find sharp early-season form

October 01, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- Whenever the Seattle Mariners have played the Orioles this season, they've encountered the American League East champions at their best. It took nothing less for the Orioles to win a season series, 7-4, that involved two extra-inning games and six decided by one run. The Orioles showed themselves deeper, savvier, more resilient and blessed with superior pitching.

Their task this week is to rediscover that team.

Five stumbling weeks have raised enough questions that the Mariners are considered favorites to win the best-of-five series. They get the first two games at home. They get Randy Johnson twice.

The Orioles finished 15-20 and lost 13 of their last 20 home games. Although observers might say they've tumbled into a late-season malaise because of a stop-and-start lineup and suddenly beatable pitching, manager Davey Johnson and his clubhouse insist that they are a veteran team that must be challenged to excel. Starting tonight at the Kingdome, they will have their challenge.

What must happen for the Orioles to win:

1. They must get ahead early.

Though their offensive style sometimes suggests otherwise, this is not a power team able to overcome large deficits.

The Mariners are hardly a speedy team -- Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey are the only players to steal 15 or more bases -- but they will likely try to exploit the Orioles' problems with stopping base runners, both from the outfield and from behind the plate. Early leads only embolden them. With Jeffrey Hammonds in left field, a limited Roberto Alomar at second base, Jerome Walton possibly at first and Chris Hoiles behind the plate in Game 1, the defense will be strained.

2. Cal Ripken must give the Orioles an offensive presence.

The third baseman insists that he is more comfortable at the plate and flexible in the field than his painful last 32 games suggest. If Ripken can generate offense from the No. 5 or No. 6 spot, Rafael Palmeiro and free-hacking Geronimo Berroa become more dangerous, too. Ripken hasn't homered since Sept. 7 and doesn't have a multi-hit game since Sept. 5, but he raised his game last October, hitting .444 in the Division Series takedown of Cleveland.

3. The Orioles must do to Mariners ace Randy Johnson what worked during the regular season, and we're not talking about shutting down a bank of lights before his start or benefiting from a well-timed rain delay.

The Orioles frustrate Johnson, who is 0-2 against them in 1997, by working counts. The best example came May 18, when Johnson threw 118 pitches in five innings against them. The Orioles chased him, then exploited the bullpen for an 8-7 win.

4. Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Jimmy Key must again resemble the Big Three.

The trio went 28-4 through June 14 but has encountered turbulence since then.

Partly due to a blister on his right index finger, Mussina has won just twice since Aug. 8 and was buffeted by the Mariners in a May 18 appearance in which he surrendered three home runs. Erickson has won twice after Aug. 12 and failed to pitch past the fifth inning in three of his last six starts. He was also the Orioles' best starter against Seattle, going 2-0 in three starts with a 2.57 ERA.

Key will be most pivotal if the Orioles split in Seattle. He is 1-8 at home since winning May 7 and 5-9 overall in games after June 13, but manager Davey Johnson gave him the Game 3 start because of his poise under pressure.

5. The middle relievers must hold.

Once a strength, it has been a weakness in recent weeks, as unsung right-handers Terry Mathews and Alan Mills have struggled. Both will eventually have to do important work against a lineup dominated by right-handed power. Jay Buhner has two home runs in nine at-bats against Mills, who has great success against left-handed batters Griffey (.182) and Paul Sorrento (.143). Buhner is hitting only .176 against Arthur Rhodes. Griffey has three homers in 21 at-bats against Rhodes.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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