Temperature check arrives for hot O's

Lacking DeShields, O's, 10-1 turnaround face test of East's best

June 22, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

For most of two weeks, the Orioles have won with starting pitching, with a swell of hitting and even with a dose of controversy.

Yesterday they learned they must survive the most critical two weeks of the first half without second baseman Delino DeShields.

As expected, the Orioles placed DeShields on the disabled list retroactive to Sunday because of a strained right hamstring suffered in Saturday's 11-9 win over the Chicago White Sox. General manager Frank Wren and manager Ray Miller made the decision after DeShields received treatment and could not be categorized as anything more than doubtful for the next week.

The 31-37 Orioles have won 10 of their last 11 games to pull themselves within at least telescopic view of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the current AL East and wild-card leaders, respectively.

Tonight the Orioles begin 16 consecutive games against the three division rivals leading them. The first six home games against the Red Sox and Yankees provide a chance to offer irrefutable evidence that this is a changed team. Careful not to oversell their turnaround, the Orioles also realize this is their best chance to directly influence the AL East standings until late September.

After these 16 games -- three against the Red Sox, seven against the Yankees and six vs. the Toronto Blue Jays -- they will play a two-game series in Boston July 21-22 then not see the Red Sox or Yankees again until their final road trip and last homestand of the season. They are done with the Blue Jays before the All-Star break.

"What you do has an immediate, direct effect. You win, there's a two-game swing. You lose, there's a two-game swing. Any time you play the team in front of you there's a greater opportunity to gain ground," said left fielder B. J. Surhoff, who carries a career-high 21-game hitting streak into tonight's game. "It's right there in front of you."

Said Miller: "Obviously if we have a good week we'll be in real good shape, but you can't worry about next Friday. You need to worry about today."

The first piece of business was promoting infielder Jerry Hairston from Triple-A Rochester. He will join the club today. Next, the Orioles will attempt to exploit advantageous pitching matchups against Jimy Williams' Red Sox. The Orioles sidestep ace Pedro Martinez while start ing Sidney Ponson, Juan Guzman and Mike Mussina. Ponson is the Orioles' pitcher of the moment, Guzman hasn't lost at Camden Yards since April 28, and Mussina has won all six of his home starts this season.

"If we keep playing the kind of baseball we have been playing, we're going to win our share of ballgames," said first baseman Will Clark. "But you do that not by looking at the next week. You do that by looking at what's coming tomorrow."

The Orioles have played 29 of their last 41 games -- including 19 of their last 25 -- on the road. Yet they enter 15-10 since May 24 and have suffered only one losing streak (three games) this month.

"I like the fire I've seen in the club," said Miller. "I just hope we continue to pitch decently enough to keep that fire going."

The Orioles' surge corresponds with the June 9 dugout confrontation between Miller and right fielder Albert Belle in Miami. Moments after not running out a ground ball, Belle objected rather bluntly to being lifted from the ninth inning as part of a predictable double switch. Miller waved him off, the Orioles held on for a 4-2 win over the Florida Marlins and, with Belle benched in the series opener, went on to sweep the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field and the Kansas City Royals last week at Camden Yards.

They followed up by winning three of four from the Chicago White Sox, a team that took nine of 11 games from them last season. In their three wins, the Orioles mashed 10 home runs, including consecutive games of four apiece Saturday and Sunday, and refused to lose Saturday even after squandering leads of 6-1, 7-6 and 9-7.

"I think everybody on the team is doing everything in their power to keep something bad from happening," Miller said. "We gave it up three times [Saturday night] and we came back in and I didn't see anybody down. The pitchers were obviously upset. But as soon as [Mike] Bordick hits his [11th-inning] home run everybody says `Let's go,' including me."

Miller would rather not make the connection between the Belle controversy and the subsequent turnaround, and most of his players believe it nothing more than coincidence. However, Belle played his best game of the season against the Royals June 15 and has not given anyone reason to question his effort since.

"Everything has to happen at the right time," Miller said when asked about a possible connection. "If anything, that scenario might have taken pressure off some people. It might have taken some pressure off Albert. I don't know. But I don't want that to be the reason for our success. I just think we're pitching good, we're hitting good and he's on his way."

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