Redesigned O's turn out to be model team

October 09, 1997|By JOHN EISENBERG

When the Orioles reached the American League Championship Series a year ago, they had a one-dimensional team that couldn't win without hitting home runs.

The Yankees shut down their bats in the ALCS and took them out in five games.

Redesigned last winter, the Orioles have many more dimensions this year, and, not coincidentally, a much better chance of winning the ALCS.

Their 3-0 victory over the Indians in Game 1 last night at Camden Yards was a classic display of their ability to beat you in different ways.

Their pitching was sharp, their defense was spectacular and their offense came from surprising sources.

It was easy, a little too easy, but the Orioles are on an October roll right now, looking very much like a team on the way to the World Series.

The Indians could still turn things around, but, at this point, they look like the Orioles in the ALCS a year ago, slightly overmatched and lacking in dimensions.

Consider the way the Orioles took command in the early innings last night, with the power at the top of their batting order.

Yet another quality the Indians can't match.

Brady Anderson led off the bottom of the first with a home run into the temporary right-field bleachers, and Roberto Alomar, batting second, made it 3-0 with another homer into the same seats two innings later.

That's two homers from the first two hitters in the order, who combined for 72 homers a year ago and still hit 32 this year even though Alomar often was injured and Anderson's total dropped from 50 to 18.

Anderson's drop-off was the biggest one-year decline in history for a major-leaguer who hit at least 40 homers one year and had at least 500 at-bats the next, but he still had a huge year with a career-high 39 doubles, 97 runs scored and a .396 on-base percentage.

His balanced season was illustrative of the team's reconfigured -- and more resourceful -- attack.

And hey, he and Alomar still were far more powerful than the top of the Indians' order, where Bip Roberts and Omar Vizquel combined for nine homers this year.

The Orioles' dependence on home runs last night was reminiscent of a year ago, but there's really no comparison between this year's and last year's offenses.

Last year's homer-happy philosophy was poorly suited to the postseason, as the Mariners learned this year after breaking the Orioles' single-season homer record during the season and then losing to the Orioles in their Division Series.

It's hard to win relying on home runs in October, when so much of the pitching is quality pitching.

Better to have an offense that can score in many ways, an offense in which the ninth man can become the hitting star, as the Orioles' Mike Bordick did against the Mariners.

A two-strike sacrifice bunt by Jeff Reboulet was the turning point in the first game of that series, remember.

You could have won a million dollars betting against the Orioles' ability to lay down a two-strike bunt last year.

This year, they can score with little ball and hit homers, too.

They dominated the AL season with their resourcefulness, and now they're dominating the playoffs, too.

And the remarkable thing is, their offense is only their third-most important asset, behind their pitching and defense.

The pitching has made headlines all season, for reasons that were in evidence last night. After Mike Mussina dominated the Mariners, there was Scott Erickson to rise up and dominate the opener of the ALCS last night. Having two ace-caliber starters is pretty convenient.

And the bullpen, as usual, was up to the task of protecting a lead, with Randy Myers throwing another perfect ninth.

But beneath the pitching and varied offense lies the one asset that has most defined the Orioles over the years -- an asset that also, fittingly, was on display last night as the club moved a step closer to the World Series.

That's the defense, of course.

Even when they were losing in the late '80s and early '90s -- how far away does 0-21 seem now? -- the Orioles always caught the ball.

They're still catching it now as a last vestige of the old Oriole Way that dates back to the days when Paul Richards was shaping the franchise.

Anderson got things started by taking a home run away from Manny Ramirez in the top of the first.

"I'd say that set the tone," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said.

So did the six ground-ball outs hit to the left side of the infield in the next four innings, all fielded flawlessly by Bordick and Cal Ripken.

In the sixth, Ripken caught a sharp liner and doubled up a runner and end the inning.

In the seventh, B. J. Surhoff sank to his knees to catch a sinking liner in left field.

In the eighth, Erickson reached out and grabbed a hard grounder to start another double play.

The Orioles made all the plays they were supposed to make and a few they weren't supposed to make.

Defense, pitching, a varied offense -- the Orioles displayed a host of dimensions last night, offering vivid evidence of just how far they have come since the disappointment of a year ago.

And how far they're capable of going.

Pub Date: 10/09/97

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