New pieces help finish O's puzzle

Odd lineup, Mussina blank Twins, 6-0, for first series win of year

7-17 club unexcited by Cuba

Reboulet, Amaral excel while regulars rest

May 03, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Davey Johnson would have called yesterday a "JV game." A lifetime ago in 1997 he used lineups heavily composed of role players while sitting Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro to defeat the Seattle Mariners' Randy Johnson twice in the American League Division Series.

Ray Miller instead called it a necessity as he started third baseman Jeff Reboulet, designated hitter Willis Otanez, shortstop Jesse Garcia and center fielder Rich Amaral, a concoction never seen before outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla. There it might have been classified as a split squad. But against the Minnesota Twins -- with Mike Mussina dealing before 41,531 at wind-chilled Camden Yards -- the Orioles called it a 6-0 win that brought their first series win of a 7-17 season.

The Orioles have won two of three. Bring on the world.

When a Cuban all-star team takes the third base dugout tonight, it will face a team rocked relentlessly since their first people-to-people exchange March 28. Right now, the Orioles would like to exchange the season's first four weeks. Instead, they've traded their day off for international goodwill.

"There haven't been too many high points. I just think sooner or later you get back to basics," Miller said after the Orioles' first series win since sweeping the Anaheim Angels on Sept. 11-13. "We all have pride. If you look at our record, when we've pitched decently we've been in ballgames and played well. There are no excuses. You just look at a stat sheet. We're scoring five runs a game and giving up seven. It tells you that ain't working."

When it has worked, Mussina (4-1) usually has pitched. He has started five of their wins, including both shutouts, and is the only member of the rotation with more than five innings per start.

The latest effort was by Moose & the Juniors. Reboulet hadn't started at third base since 1996 with the Twins. Otanez made his first major-league start as a designated hitter. Garcia, a second baseman at Triple-A Rochester, hadn't played yesterday's assigned position since 1997 with Double-A Bowie. Amaral got his second start in center field in place of Brady Anderson.

Assuming a diplomatic stance, Miller said beforehand that the lineup was a countermeasure vs. Twins left-hander Eric Milton.

In reality, he was forced to improvise because of internal pressures to use his regular lineup tonight vs. Cuba. Major League Baseball denied rumors of wielding influence.

"The Orioles have not been instructed with regard to their lineup. We have had conversations with them, and they have told us what they intend to do. But they have not been directed. I think we're very comfortable with their approach to the game," said MLB executive vice president Sandy Alderson.

Today originally represented a day off within the team's cramped May schedule. With the insertion of tonight's exhibition, the Orioles now must play 20 games in 20 days. Given few options, Miller rested shortstop Mike Bordick, Anderson, DH Harold Baines and catcher Charles Johnson. It was Bordick's first reprieve this season. The alternative would be to risk further grinding his downtrodden team as it prepares for a demanding Detroit-Cleveland-Texas road swing.

"When you're not playing well, you usually want all the days off you can get. When you're playing well, you don't want off days," said Reboulet, leaving a listener to draw his own conclusions.

Miller was rewarded with perhaps his team's tightest-played game this season, an error-free performance that featured two stolen bases, occasional situational hitting and home runs by Delino DeShields and Albert Belle.

Mussina threw 122 pitches in seven innings not because of wildness -- he walked one while striking out three -- but because of a frustrating inability to finish hitters after two strikes. The Twins, aggressive and contact-conscious, remain disciples of former hitting coach Terry Crowley, who jumped to the Orioles last winter.

"I still put them in a tough spot early in the at-bat, so they're a little more defensive," said Mussina, rating yesterday's performance a notch below his 1-0 shutout of the Toronto Blue Jays on April 10.

DeShields gave Mussina all the offense he needed by ripping Milton's fourth pitch into the bleachers in right-center for the Orioles' third leadoff homer this season.

With two outs and none on in the third inning, Belle was challenged for one of the few recent times and yanked his fifth home run -- tying his stolen base total and ending a 7-for-45 slump.

The "JVs" provided the rest of the offense against Milton (0-2), who was charged with six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings as the lower half of the order ripped him for five hits, eight total bases and three RBIs. Conine, asked to bunt three runs down on Saturday, managed hits in his first three at-bats. Amaral entered the game 1-for-20 but singled and doubled in his first two at-bats and lofted a sacrifice fly in his third plate appearance.

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