O's brushing up on finishing stroke

September 11, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Too often in huge chunks, the expectations for this season fell heavily on the Orioles, a veteran team kept together for one more postseason that now will not arrive. With a 10-2 start, they at least showed an ability to sprint. Now, confronted by five teams still pressing for the playoffs, the Orioles will show if they can finish.

Projects have since replaced tangible goals. The 73-72 Orioles begin the season's final homestand tonight trying to broker the American League West and wild-card chases while exposing several of their top prospects.

Reliever Alan Mills coined the apt metaphor for the situation Tuesday night. "The funeral's over," he said. "The body's in the ground."

Buried by a recent 10-game losing streak that included nine losses to the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals, a team tired of clubhouse meetings, front-office intrigue and contract uncertainty must find a way to persevere.

The Orioles' salvage operation must proceed with their direction uncertain beyond this month.

General manager Pat Gillick has given no indication of staying beyond his contract, which expires after the season.

Assistant general manager Kevin Malone -- the supposed "front-runner" to succeed Gillick -- may be a more likely possibility as the Los Angeles Dodgers' next general manager.

Meanwhile, negotiations with several pending free agents are on hold.

Manager Ray Miller, now resigned to the month's unworkable math, tries to juggle a responsibility to player development along with a duty to be competitive against the Anaheim Angels, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

The Orioles play nine of their last 12 games against the Jays and Red Sox, separated by only five games in the wild-card race.

For a veteran team, the struggle is just as difficult. Motivated by a World Series berth, a $69 million clubhouse takes little solace from a spoiler role.

"It's hard to keep motivated and keep focused when we worked so hard to do what we did after the All-Star break and then lose it so quickly. It takes a lot out of you mentally and physically to do that," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "Personal goals can keep you motivated to some extent."

Miller said Wednesday he intends to inject one prospect a game. First baseman Calvin Pickering, second baseman Jerry Hairston and outfielder Danny Clyburn will rotate while pitcher Chris Fussell joins the bullpen and could conceivably receive a start.

After an encouraging relief appearance in Seattle, the star-crossed Rocky Coppinger will likely be called upon more readily.

"You don't want to be a team that doesn't put forth its best effort at this time of the season," Miller said. "At the same time, we've got a couple people, because of the numbers they put up, who deserve to be here."

Though the manager will find opportunities for his young players, Miller insists it will not come at the expense of veterans trying to improve strong statistical seasons. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro and left fielder B. J. Surhoff will likely keep their season of perfect attendance intact as, of course, will third baseman Cal Ripken. (Third base prospect Ryan Minor underwent an examination of his injured wrist Wednesday and is not expected to receive a call-up.) Palmeiro or second baseman Roberto Alomar may serve some days as designated hitter.

Miller said 85 wins is an admirable albeit adjusted goal. Reaching it will require a 12-5 finish against five of the league's toughest six teams. The Orioles are 20-21 against their remaining opponents.

"With everything that has happened, I think that would be a reasonable year," said Miller, referring to the spate of early pitching injuries and the recent breakdowns among his outfield that contributed to a protracted slump.

Miller still voices hope for re-signing Palmeiro. However, the relationship between Alomar and the organization appears permanently frayed. Alomar said he has yet to receive an offer from the club. As a result, Hairston -- a converted shortstop who hasn't played above Double-A -- probably will receive more playing time than Pickering despite the first baseman's staggering offensive numbers.

Experimentation also may occur in the bullpen. Increasingly impatient with combustible Armando Benitez, the Orioles would prefer to give Arthur Rhodes a look as closer but the left-hander's tender left elbow and knee make such an experiment risky.

"Arthur is still in a situation where he gets tender if you use him two or three days in a row," Miller said. "It's pretty hard to say you'll use him as your closer because basically your closer has to be able to throw five days in a row."

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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