Glow of hope still slight, but fate lends O's a hand

June 23, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Orioles have big games to play this week at Camden Yards, which, if anything, proves how easy it is to have big games to play in 1999.

You'd think that two months of losing baseball followed by two weeks of winning baseball wouldn't be enough to put a team in position to think big, but the Orioles were doing just that last night as they waded into a homestand against the Red Sox and Yankees.

Coming from behind to beat the Sox on Albert Belle's three-run homer will only increase the size of their dreams. If it wasn't the most encouraging win of the season, it was close.

Yes, they still have a long way to go to prove themselves capable of winning consistently and contending into September, particularly with a bullpen that's hardly dependable.

But it's a victory that they haven't already sunk from sight for the season, as you'd think they might after losing 36 of their first 57 games. A combination of circumstances has given them a second chance in spite of their still-unimpressive 32-37 record.

Their improved play is the biggest difference, of course. Suddenly, a team that couldn't do anything right has won 11 of 12 games. Their bats are hot and the starting pitching has stabilized.

As well, the Yankees are following a human course this year after last year's inhuman performance, which included 114 regular-season wins and a decisive run through the playoffs.

After beating Tampa Bay last night, the Yankees are 10 games off last year's won-lost pace -- still good enough for first place in the AL East at 40-28, but not nearly as disheartening for those chasing them.

The Orioles are just one game off last year's won-lost pace, but they're only 8 1/2 games behind the Yankees as opposed to 17 1/2 back on this date a year ago.

You're kidding yourself if you don't think that makes a big difference. Nothing depresses a team more than a daily drumbeat of ground lost.

Not that the Orioles are likely to end up challenging the Yankees for a division title. Please. This was a team at a low ebb just 11 days ago. No far-fetched scenarios should even be discussed until the Orioles reach .500, if they ever do.

A more likely scenario would have them in the running for the AL's wild-card ticket to the playoffs -- an opportunity also known as the great giver of hope and second chances for all losing teams.

The wild-card favorites are the incumbents, the Red Sox, who won 92 games a year ago and, surprisingly, are just three wins off that pace despite the off-season loss of Mo Vaughn via free agency.

The Sox are hard to figure, an odd amalgam of parts cobbled together by GM Dan Duquette, who is extremely unpopular in New England after presiding over the departures of Vaughn and Roger Clemens. But they lead the AL in pitching thanks to Pedro Martinez, they have Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop and they play well from behind. Somehow, it's enough.

Yes, their pitching is in disarray at the moment, with Bret Saberhagen coming off the disabled list, Mark Portugal coming back from a brief retirement and Tim Wakefield closing instead of Tom Gordon, who is injured for the second time this year.

But don't be fooled. Martinez alone is enough to put the Sox at the top of the wild-card race. Supplanting them won't be easy. And the Orioles still have 7 1/2 games to make up. That's a major chore.

Other than the Sox, though, none of the other likely wild-card contenders have established themselves to any degree. That's another favorable development for the Orioles.

The Angels figured to make a run after adding Vaughn, but they're in last place in the AL West after experiencing their usual, bewildering run of devastating injuries. The Blue Jays, who won 88 games a year ago, are below .500 without Clemens and Jose Canseco.

The Mariners are the only other team with a shot thanks to Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez, but they're ranked last in the league in pitching. A long shot.

The Orioles should be embarrassed to be so far from serious contention in such favorable conditions, but that's the fallout from their poor start.

Digging out obviously is a possibility with almost 100 games left to play; look what was accomplished with 10 wins in 11 games against the Braves, Royals and White Sox. Suddenly, this week's series are important. Meaningful. A lost season could be found.

That the Orioles have such a second chance is attributable partly to their own play, but mostly to baseball's watered-down playoff format, which added a wild-card qualifier in each league in 1996.

Chances come cheaper now, no doubt about it.

The Orioles took a step in the right direction last night, putting the biggest charge of the year into a lively crowd at Camden Yards. A late-inning loss turned into a night to think big, making the rest of the week even more important now.

Their margin of error is still thin, of course, so they have to keep winning, keep pushing, keep making the most of what they have started. Having a second chance is one thing. Taking advantage of it is another.

Pub Date: 6/23/99

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