O's-Braves not in same league now

June 12, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Two years ago, Greg Maddux dominated the Orioles for four innings at Turner Field, facing the minimum 12 hitters. But the Orioles erupted for four runs in the sixth and held on for a 4-3 victory.

Last night was a near-repeat of the '97 series opener -- Maddux again had a shutout through five, then allowed five runs in the sixth, and suffered a 5-2 defeat.

If only the meaning were the same.

Interleague play is no longer a novelty. And the Orioles no longer play at the level of the Atlanta Braves.

Two years ago, it was all so different. Jimmy Key vs. Maddux. Mike Mussina vs. John Smoltz. Scott Erickson vs. Tom Glavine. The first big interleague series. A potential World Series preview.

It seems like a decade has passed since then.

The Orioles were 45-19 after their three-game sweep at Turner Field. They went wire-to-wire to win the division and advanced to the ALCS, but that weekend in Atlanta may have been their peak.

Since then, the Orioles are 154-164. They've had two general managers, two managers and three pitching coaches. They've crashed with two of the five highest payrolls in major-league history.

The Braves? They're 202-114 since that weekend. General manager John Schuerholz, manager Bobby Cox and pitching coach Leo Mazzone have been in place virtually the entire decade. They've taken their club to the NCLS seven straight seasons.

And only two years ago, the Orioles were the better team.

Then as now, Maddux started the first game and Fox televised the second. ESPN, anticipating a marquee rematch, grabbed the series finale this time. It got stuck with the Orioles but lucked into Mussina-Smoltz II.

How could one team fall so quickly while the other remains dominant? Because one team has a productive farm system. A general manager who operates with minimal interference from ownership. And, of course, the best trio of starting pitchers in baseball.

But this tale of two franchises doesn't end there.

The Orioles entered last night 22-36 with their top free agent, Albert Belle, benched by manager Ray Miller. The Braves entered 37-22 with their top free agent, Baltimore native Brian Jordan, third in the NL with 53 RBIs.

The Orioles never would have signed Belle if they had landed Jordan, but their pitching is so bad, neither player was the answer. Jordan's five-year, $40 million deal still seems excessive. Belle's five-year, $65 million deal looks worse.

But it's what you would expect from a team with no plan.

Incredible as it might seem, the Orioles actually have more holdovers from their '97 club (10) than the Braves (nine). The Atlanta bullpen, in particular, seems to feature new faces each season. Yet, the bottom line doesn't change.

Maddux and Glavine are struggling, but Smoltz is 7-1 and the bullpen includes four relievers with ERAs below 2.00. First baseman Andres Galarraga and shortstop Walt Weiss are sidelined, but the four home-grown regulars -- Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko -- are all under 30.

The Braves promoted Kevin Millwood to their rotation last season and Odalis Perez this season, with Bruce Chen still waiting at Triple-A. Their new closer, John Rocker, is another farm-system product. And for the most part, they've succeeded with their free-agent signings and trades.

Like any team, the Braves make mistakes -- most notably, David Justice and Marquis Grissom to Cleveland for Kenny Lofton and Alan Embree in the spring of '97. But even then, they were able to recover.

The ascension of Andruw Jones enabled Schuerholz to part with Lofton after one season. The Baltimore-born GM then retooled his offense by signing Galarraga for '98 and Jordan for '99. His latest major trade -- Denny Neagle, Michael Tucker and a minor-leaguer to Cincinnati for Bret Boone and Mike Remlinger -- looks like a steal.

The Orioles, of course, wanted to sign Jordan to play center field, a move that would have enabled them to move Brady Anderson to left and B. J. Surhoff to right -- and ended any chance of them pursuing Belle. They're older than Atlanta, just as they were two years ago. But so much else has changed.

The Orioles' three victories in their first series at Turner Field were by scores of 4-3, 6-4 and 5-3. They left with a nine-game lead over the New York Yankees. Owner Peter Angelos attended the series and stood beaming outside the visitors' clubhouse afterward, shaking hands.

The first night, manager Davey Johnson pulled a triple switch in the ninth inning, "just to see if I still had it." The next day, Brady Anderson hit a game-tying homer off Smoltz in the seventh, and Chris Hoiles delivered the game-winning double on an 0-2 count in the 12th after striking out five times.

The finale was even wilder -- Johnson used three shortstops, three left fielders and four different players in the No. 2 spot in a span of four innings. Cal Ripken started the game-winning rally with a one-out single on an 0-2 count against then-closer Mark Wohlers. And for one shining moment, the Orioles looked like the best team in baseball.

Only two years ago.

Seems like a decade.

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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