Bronx zoo cage of woe for Orioles

Yankee Stadium poses demons both present, past for struggling O's

Champs off to 5-1 start

Benitez brawl, 3 losses by 1 run part of 0-7 saga

April 13, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- On Opening Day Ray Miller insisted he doesn't manage while looking in the rear-view mirror. Good thing. What's ahead is scary enough.

Six games into a new season and the Orioles already confront a huge obstacle tonight when they meet the New York Yankees in their little house of horrors to begin a nine-game road trip. If Cal Ripken isn't falling into a photographer's pit, then the Dominican Strongman is serving chin music or Miller is getting thumbed for arguing against injustice.

For a team and a manager desperately seeking momentum, there couldn't be a much more daunting setting to conduct a turnaround. The Yankees' most serious problems are Joe Torre's prostate, Don Zimmer's knee and Andy Pettitte's back. Without Pettitte, they have won five straight and their rotation has still allowed only 18 hits in 41 2/3 innings. Orlando Hernandez pitched 6 2/3 perfect innings Sunday.

Orioles starters have allowed 22 runs in 30 innings, leaving the bullpen to shoulder 24 innings, an average of four per game. Three times the lineup has scored at least four runs and lost.

"It's too early to make any judgments now," reliever Jesse Orosco said after the Orioles dropped their fourth in five games Sunday. "If this thing keeps happening day in and day out, then it's something to think about. We'll just try to manufacture something down the road and get it going again."

Recently, however, the Bronx has resembled a pothole. The Orioles have dropped their last seven games at Yankee Stadium, including a 9-5 debacle last May 19 when Armando Benitez drilled Yankees designated hitter Tino Martinez in the upper back and incited a bench-clearing melee that motivated Miller to apologize and AL president Gene Budig to levy an eight-game suspension against the former Orioles closer. Reliever Alan Mills also received a two-game suspension.

The Orioles' last Bronx loss, 1-0 on July 5, was at least partially attributable to a blown ninth-inning call when Yankees third baseman Scott Brosius botched a throw that was ruled a catch.

Miller was ejected by crew chief Ken Kaiser, who afterward was unable to say the call was a correct one.

Miller refers to the July series often. The Orioles suffered three one-run losses, moving Miller to claim, "We played them as tough as anybody. We could have won any of those games with the right hit or the right call."

At least this time Miller has the right pitchers available as Juan Guzman, Scott Erickson and Mike Mussina will face Ramiro Mendoza, David Cone and Roger Clemens. "I always look forward to going to New York," Miller said. "Regardless of the record, we played extremely well there last year. If not for an umpiring call, we had it 1-1 in the ninth with bases loaded and nobody out. In the Benitez game, which ended up in a riot, we had a guy coming off the DL [Scott Kamieniecki] with no rehab who had them shut out for five innings."

Since the Orioles led the Yankees by 9 1/2 games on June 4, 1997, the two teams have dramatically changed course. The Orioles were still able to claim their first AL East title that season, but needed until the season's 158th game to clinch. The Yankees finished the season only two games behind to capture the AL wild card and followed with last season's remarkable 114-win campaign culminating in their second world championship in three years.

Meanwhile, a switch in managers from 1997, a renovated front office and a relative purge of last season's clubhouse have not eased questions surrounding the Orioles' $84 million payroll.

Dating to their 1997 high-water mark against the Yankees, the Orioles are 141-136. Since cresting at 39 games above .500 on Aug. 24, 1997, they have struggled to a 96-107 record and haven't won any of their last six series, including four at the end of last season. At 2-4 this season they remain a pitching riddle.

General manager Frank Wren has helped bring about a new look to a club that now lacks its leading home run and RBI man (Rafael Palmeiro), its closer (Benitez) and its highest percentage hitter (Eric Davis) from last season. While talk of on-field chemistry was consistently downplayed this spring, the Orioles have so far resembled an uncomfortable fit.

The absence of projected No. 4 starter Kamieniecki due to a strained hamstring has intensified scrutiny of Sidney Ponson, whom Miller criticized Sunday for his weight. Second baseman Delino DeShields saw major-league pitching for the first time on Sunday due to a broken left thumb suffered during a March 4 intrasquad game. Gold Glove catcher Charles Johnson has experienced the frustrations of trying to catch runners barely checked by his pitchers. And Johnson's defensive gaffe during a comedic seventh-inning rundown Sunday stands as the season's signature.

Tomorrow's starting pitcher, Erickson, continues to lobby for Lenny Webster as his personal catcher. Erickson, addicted to work, remains out of sorts due to a camp in which he lacked innings and was asked to shuffle spots in the rotation with Guzman.

Even Saturday's 1-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays came with its own intrigue. Miller's decision to pinch hit spray hitter Rich Amaral for designated hitter Harold Baines with the bases loaded was a shock in some corners. Baines answered with a three-run home run in Sunday's loss.

The Yankees (5-1) spent Sunday cradling their World Series rings, inscribed with the words, "Best Ever." The Orioles would like nothing more than to have their swaggering hosts experience some of their frustrations.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: New York Yankees

Site: Yankee Stadium

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Juan Guzman (0-1, 16.20) vs. Yankees' Ramiro Mendoza (1-0, 0.00)

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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