O's crunch foes and numbers Faced by math, they reduce Boston chase to 1 equation win today

10-game road trip is key

20-5 run a start, but O's have no 'losses to give'

August 07, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

An enlarged schedule dominates one of Ray Miller's office walls. The home games are colored yellow, the road games left white. As each game is played, the Orioles manager memorializes it with a black W or L. The first-half letters are tiny, as if ashamed they might be read. The second-half letters are huge. Miller went to his enlarged alphabet when his team found itself 15 1/2 games out of the AL wild-card berth.

Whatever happens now, no one has to squint.

The Orioles today embark on a 10-game road trip, their longest this season. Traveling to Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Cleveland, they sit 8 1/2 games behind Boston for the wild card after the Red Sox's 7-4 loss in Texas last night. They made playing the game in July seem like calculus. Now the Orioles are tempted by the math.

What question is Miller most frequently asked? Not even close.

What will it take to complete an unprecedented comeback that would carry the Orioles to a third consecutive postseason?

"I don't have the answer to that. I guess it depends on what happens weekly. When we get back off this road trip we ought to know better," Miller said.

Miller only hopes it gets complicated. Simplification requires a flameout that would make the last four weeks a tease. Instead, the Orioles maintain that their 20-5 record since the All-Star break is a more accurate reflection of their potential than a 28-48 stretch ending the first half.

The Orioles have fewer losses in the month since the All-Star Game than in the seven games preceding it. They own the game's best second-half record and because of it have shaved seven games from the Red Sox's lead. They also dramatically strengthened themselves with last Friday's acquisition of starting pitcher Juan Guzman from the Toronto Blue Jays.

A veteran clubhouse speaks with one voice. The long march from oblivion has to be made step by step. Leaps occur in weeks, not days.

"I don't think anybody has set a goal of where we should be at a certain point. What are we, three games over?" asked and answered Mike Mussina, the Orioles ace who hasn't lost since June.

Even Mussina is surprised how rapidly the team returned to .500. Twelve games under at the break July 6, they reached .500 for the first time in more than two months July 23.

"We're scoring early and we're scoring late," Mussina said. "Runs are important all the time. But when you score early it gives yourself a lead, and runs late put a game away. We've been able to do that. Make a 3-0 game 4-0. Those are little things people don't think that much about."

The Orioles were dealt the 1996 wild card despite only 88 wins. No one believes that number will hold this time.

"I think we have to play better than .600," catcher Lenny Webster said. "Somewhere around 37-12 would be good. Legitimately to have a shot at this thing, I think we have to at least win 92 games."

If the Red Sox play .500 the rest of the way, they'll finish 91-71. They'll finish 95-57 if they maintain their current .589 winning percentage, the league's second-best record. The math only gets in the way of a team peaking.

"When you're ahead in the standings you can look around," said outfielder/designated hitter Eric Davis, two games shy of tying Rafael Palmeiro's club-record 24-game hitting streak. "Last year we could play that game. Now we can't look past any series. We don't have losses to give."

Miller won't circle Sept. 16 on his wall schedule, but he might as well. He quietly hopes the Orioles can scratch within four games of Boston that day when his team sees the Red Sox for the first of six times in the season's final 12 days. With the Orioles' upgraded pitching, Miller doesn't worry about a white-knuckler finish.

"We can't worry about who we're playing next week, who Boston's playing or who Texas is playing," said middle reliever Alan Mills. "We've got to worry about today. Boston is tomorrow. We don't have the luxury of looking at the schedule anymore. We lost too many games in the first half."

A team accused of lethargy in June now plays with urgency. Wanting to believe, Guzman's arrival encouraged the feeling.

"I think the attitude now is we're going to go out and win the game," said catcher Chris Hoiles, in the midst of a three-week offensive revival. "I know there are going to be times when we go out and lose. But we feel we have a very good chance at winning. What Guzman did helps us. When you go out there every day with [Scott] Erickson, Mussina and Guzman, it's pretty good."

Recently imported reliever Pete Smith has seen all this happen before. As a starting pitcher alongside Tom Glavine, Steve Avery and John Smoltz, Smith experienced the Atlanta Braves' stirring comebacks against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1991, the Cincinnati Reds in 1992 and the San Francisco Giants in 1993.

Without a wild-card option, twice the Braves found themselves off the division lead by eight games or more in July. Twice they rallied to win the pennant on the final weekend.

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