With 1-2 punch on mound, O's have shot, though long

June 24, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Never mind last night's 5-0 loss to Boston. Here are the projected matchups for the Division Series against Cleveland:

Game 1 -- Mike Mussina vs. David Wells.

Game 2 -- Sidney Ponson vs. Kevin Appier.

Game 3 -- Matt Riley vs. Bartolo Colon.

You want to know if it's possible. Yeah, it's possible. Even for a team that is guilty until proven innocent, it's possible.

The Orioles are back to six games under .500, back to 8 1/2 games behind Boston in the wild-card race. They're old. They're slow. Their bullpen is frightful.

But they've got Mussina and Ponson, probably the second-best 1-2 starting combination in the American League, behind only David Cone and Orlando Hernandez.

Mussina seeks his 10th win against Mark Portugal tonight, and, as usual, the Orioles badly need him to deliver. Instead of going for the sweep, they're now reduced to trying to win the series.

They've scored one run in 11 2/3 innings against the Boston starters the past two nights. And the matchups against New York this weekend are far less favorable -- Hideki Irabu vs. Scott Erickson, Jason Johnson vs. Cone, Ponson vs. Hernandez.

Hey, no one ever said this would be easy. But optimists who examine the pitiful wild-card field might be inspired to revive the slogan of the 1989 season, not that these millionaires bear any resemblance to those upstarts.

Why not?

The math still isn't encouraging.

But it's a whole lot less imposing than it was two weeks ago.

Only once in three full seasons of expanded playoffs has the wild-card winner posted fewer than 90 victories -- in 1996, when the Orioles finished 88-74.

Assuming, then, that 88 victories is the minimum for a postseason appearance -- and it might not be in this ridiculous season -- the Orioles must finish 56-36.

That's 56-36 on top of 11-2, but who's counting?

Not Ray Miller, who is seeking to be promoted from manager for life to manager for eternity.

Not Frank Wren, who remains general manager for the moment.

And not even owner Peter Angelos, who not only conceded this season in an interview with the Washington Post, but next season as well.

Obviously, Angelos was misquoted.

What he meant to say was, "We have not yet begun to fight."

Actually, Angelos had the right idea when he said the Orioles were priming for 2001. How was he to know that his team would suddenly get up for every opponent but Rochester?

No one knew, which is the amazing part of all this. The other amazing part is that the Orioles were still five games under .500 after their 11-1 surge, and that might be as good as it gets.

If the Orioles win the wild card, we will be happy to swallow every nasty word written about them in this space, even if it amounts to a 56-course meal.

Only with the expanded playoffs could a team botch more than a third of its season and still consider itself a contender, but at least the Orioles had the good sense to stumble early.

At their low point, they were 21-36, three games further below .500 than their low point last season (38-50). But their wild-card deficit grew only to 11 1/2 games, compared with 15 1/2 last year.

The trick now is for the Orioles to sustain success, something they failed to do after opening the second half of last season 30-8. They collapsed with a 1-11 stretch and 2-11 finish, and ended Miller's first season 79-83.

The same thing could happen again with an aging club that might again wear down late in the season, but the Orioles should be able to avoid prolonged slumps as long as Mussina and Ponson stay healthy.

The two are a combined 16-7 with ERAs below 3.70. If Erickson gets going and Juan Guzman keeps giving the Orioles chances to win, the rotation will be good enough.

The major question, of course, remains the bullpen, which has been better of late, largely because the starters have been pitching so deep into games. The moment that changes, the season will start slip-slidin' away.

For now, all the Orioles can do is ride this out and see where they are in mid-July.

Their resurgence seemingly ensures that the team will stay intact through the July 31 trade deadline, not that Wren has much room to maneuver, anyway.

But if they again fall 10 games under .500 as the deadline nears, it will be time to consider trading as many veterans as possible -- Erickson, Guzman, Arthur Rhodes, Harold Baines -- with the goal of finally getting younger.

As badly as the Orioles started, Angelos probably would be elated, especially when he's supporting an $84.5 million payroll. But no one, least of all the owner, should get carried away just yet.

That Division Series against Cleveland is still a dream.

The difference now is that Mussina and Ponson offer hope where there was none before.

Pub Date: 6/24/99

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