Orioles flash playoff form, even if they can't use it

August 23, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

With 31 wins in 41 games since the All-Star break, the Orioles have revealed their true selves for all to see.

They're a playoff team.

A playoff team that's probably not going to the playoffs.

Some epitaph.

No, they aren't better than the supernatural Yankees, but they're better than the AL Central-leading Indians, better than the two AL West contenders and every bit the equal of the Red Sox, who lead the wild-card race.

They're probably going to be the best team in the major leagues not to play in October this year.

Sure, it's good that they finish strong, regain their self-respect and lay positive groundwork for 1999.

But what a waste.

They have a better winning percentage than the Yankees since the All-Star break six-plus weeks ago. A run that long can't be a fluke or a random spin of baseball's whims.

It's the measure of a team with enough pitching, hitting and defense to win games in October.

But the Orioles aren't even going to play in October unless the Red Sox fall apart, which they aren't doing.

For that somber reality, the Orioles have only themselves to blame.

"We definitely have a great team. We just screwed up the first half," pitcher Scott Erickson said after collecting the win in a 6-3 defeat of the Indians yesterday at Camden Yards. "So I'd say we're a good team, not a great team. A great team wouldn't have screwed up the first half like we did."

For those who weren't paying attention, the Orioles lost 50 of 88 games before the All-Star break.

"We dug ourselves a huge hole," Erickson said. "To get out, we're to the point now where we have to win almost every day. We have to win, like, 30 of our last 33 games. If we don't, we're out of it."

Thirty of 33 is .900 baseball, an unrealistic goal. But the Orioles have a .756 winning percentage since the break, so they're not that far off.

"We're a playoff-caliber team, absolutely," said Eric Davis, who had two hits yesterday. "But we didn't have to prove it by playing better [lately]. We knew before the season that we were playoff-caliber."

So, like, what happened? Why did they resemble an expansion hTC team instead of a contender for so long?

Manager Ray Miller insisted again yesterday that a healthy starting rotation was the difference.

"I defy any team to lose their first, third and fourth starters, find replacements and keep winning," Miller said, referring to Mike Mussina, Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki, all of whom spent long chunks of time on the disabled list.

The return of Mussina, the emergence of Sidney Ponson and the acquisition of Juan Guzman have stabilized the rotation and underlined the 31-10 run, no doubt.

But there are numerous, other reasons why the Orioles played so poorly before and aren't now.

The front office expected Doug Drabek to pitch ably as a starter, for instance. Oops.

The front office also expected Terry Mathews and Norm Charlton to handle the long relief load. Double oops.

A 1-9 run against the Expos, Marlins and Devil Rays was inexcusable regardless of who was injured. In those days, fairly or not, the Orioles resembled a team discouraged by losing and going through the motions.

Offensively, the batting order had cracks in the foundation. Miller stayed too long with a sore, struggling Brady Anderson at leadoff. An aging Joe Carter was given too many at-bats in run-producing holes.

The offense is far more streamlined, effective and dependable now with Alomar at leadoff, Anderson batting second and Davis carrying a load as an everyday player instead of sharing time with Carter, who was traded.

It doesn't hurt that Cal Ripken, Mike Bordick and Chris Hoiles all are thriving at the plate now after struggling before the break.

"We've got a good ballclub, a very good ballclub," Miller said. "Our defense is like a highlight film out there. The offense has produced. But it comes down to how well you're pitching."

The Orioles are pitching well. Their starters' combined ERA is 1.34 points lower since the All-Star break. The bullpen's ERA is more than two points lower.

Where was that before the break? Where was a lot of the fine baseball the Orioles are delivering?

After the Indians took the lead in the top of the sixth yesterday, the Orioles scored four in the sixth and seventh to take control. Erickson pitched a complete game in 95-degree heat. That's four wins

in six games against the Indians over the past two weekends.

"We have a good team and we're playing well," Davis said. "We could easily win 90 [games] and not make the playoffs."

That has happened to many teams before; the 1980 Orioles won 100 games and didn't make the playoffs.

"What are you going to do, cry about the rules?" Erickson said. "This is the situation we're in. We made it. We have to deal with it."

And they'll probably have to deal with an epitaph no team wants: A playoff team that didn't make the playoffs. Baseball's ultimate frustration.

Pub Date: 8/23/98

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