It's not the Yankees, but it's for pennant Baseball: The Orioles get a rematch for the league title, but it's the Indians who stand in the way of the World Series.

October 08, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Bring on the Yankees er, Indians.

For the past year, Orioles fans have dreamed of hanging George Steinbrenner in effigy from the Bromo Seltzer tower, but they'll have to settle for Chief Wahoo. The Cleveland Indians don't evoke quite the same emotional response as the rival New York Yankees, but the stakes are the same. The American League Championship Series opens tonight, and the potential prize is the Orioles' first trip to the World Series since 1983.

Orioles right-hander Scott Erickson will start Game 1 (8: 13 p.m.) against Indians right-hander Chad Ogea on what is expected to be a perfect night for baseball at sold-out Camden Yards.

The Indians came back to defeat the Yankees in the final two games of their best-of-five Division Series and prevent a long-awaited rematch of last year's pennant playoff, which the Orioles lost to the Yankees in such frustrating fashion that general manager Pat Gillick reconfigured the team for a possible 1997 ALCS showdown.

"I think our focus from spring training on this year was to get to the LCS and World Series," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "We kind of assumed we would have to go through New York because they are the world champions, but none of us were heartbroken when the Yankees lost and none of us cried."

There is a revenge angle, but it's coming from the other direction. The Orioles defeated the Indians in last year's Division Series. Baltimore also stole the beloved Browns from Cleveland and turned them into the Ravens. There are still some hard feelings.

"That's possible," said Erickson. "But I think whomever they have to play, they just want to get to the World Series, also. I don't think it's going to be an extra motivation for them or anything like that."

Maybe not, but the Indians had the best record in the American League last year, when they became the first division winner bounced out of the postseason by a wild-card entrant. The roles are almost reversed this time. The Orioles had the best record in the American League, and the Indians -- despite their first-place finish in the American League Central Division -- had the worst regular-season record of any of the four AL playoff teams. Could the underdog come through again?

"I hope that holds true," said Indians manager Mike Hargrove, who has reached the postseason three straight years. "But once the postseason begins, you can throw the records out the window and start all over again."

It will be a quick turnaround for the Indians, who had to focus all of their energy toward surviving the Division Series. They played two draining games Sunday and Monday, coming back in the late innings to win Game 4 and then holding on to score a one-run victory in Game 5.

That's why Hargrove is going with his No. 4 starter in the opener. The Orioles, by virtue of Mike Mussina's strong performance in Sunday's game against the Seattle Mariners, have the luxury of going with Erickson (16-7) on regular rest, which creates the possibility that he could pitch three times during the best-of-seven series.

Jimmy Key will start Game 2 tomorrow, followed by Mussina in Game 3 on Saturday in Cleveland. Erickson is the one Orioles starter who prefers to pitch on short rest, so he could be available in Game 4 and again in Game 7 if Johnson feels the need to stay with his three core starting pitchers. But the plan is to go with a four-man rotation, with right-hander Scott Kamieniecki scheduled to pitch the fifth game unless the club is behind at that point.

The Orioles finally are getting some respect from the oddsmakers, who listed them as a slight underdog in the Division Series against the Mariners. They will be a solid favorite when the games begin tonight, but they -- and the Indians -- are proof that the odds were made to be beaten.

Pub Date: 10/08/97

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