O's carvers content to chip away Game-at-a-time approach brings distant wild-card goal clearly into focus


August 18, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Now that they have climbed within hailing distance of a wild-card berth, the Orioles aren't about to change the approach that lifted them out of playoff-hope oblivion in the first place.

Like any strapping boy who grew up in Ohio, Chris Hoiles played high school football, and the catcher described the mind-set with a mantra worthy of Friday night, "one game at a time." Even that perspective was a bit too big-picture for shortstop Mike Bordick.

"When a team digs a rut, a hole like we did, the only way to deal with it is one day at a time," Bordick said. "Even that's too much. You've got to take it one at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time."

The chip-away mentality has dislodged a large chunk from a deficit in the American League wild-card chase that was DTC daunting 15 1/2 games at the All-Star break. Last night's win was the 14th in 19 games for the Orioles, including just three home dates, and pared the Red Sox's lead to 6 1/2 games.

Considering where they were in July, it seemed a trifling obstacle.

The 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins began a seven-game homestand. Twenty-two of their next 34 games will be at Camden Yards, and the Orioles will conclude 1998 with four games against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, where they just want to be in position to get into the AL playoffs for the third straight year.

No one in the clubhouse is coy enough to claim that they aren't studying the nuances of the schedule. To a man, they also appreciate the ground they have already made up since the break, when they were a season-low 12 games below .500 and seldom was heard an encouraging word.

"We knew we were in trouble," Hoiles said. "After the dismal first half we had, there was a lot of disappointment and concern. Anytime you fall that far behind, not just the leader [the New York Yankees] but the wild card, that's a pretty big mountain to climb.

"It was never so large that we counted ourselves out though. One game at a time has been the concept since the second half started."

Thus lies the paradox at play in the surge. It's easier for Bordick, Hoiles and company to focus on each pitch when you're winning.

"With every win, you gain momentum, and it seems like things begin to fall your way," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. "Balls hit in the gap that were caught in June aren't caught now. The other team hits a line drive with a couple guys on, and it curves foul. You make things go your way. That happens when you start playing good baseball."

Stability in the pitching rotation has done wonders for the psyche. So has the maturity of one of the oldest teams in baseball.

"If we were a young team, we would have been in big trouble in July," Palmeiro said. "We've got so many veterans, who've played so many games. We got so far behind, but we felt we had a shot if we played up to our capabilities."

Manager Ray Miller has said that he'll be pleased if the Orioles are within five games of the Red Sox by the end of the month. His players have picked up on that desired checkpoint, although there's no reason to stop there, just as there's no reason to overlook the fact that the wild-card isn't a two-horse race.

"There are so many variables to consider," Hoiles said. "It's not just Boston that we're contending with. You've got Anaheim and Texas, and the one that doesn't win the West will be a factor, so it's actually three teams involved."

Three teams. One day at a time.

Pub Date: 8/18/98

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