O's still have a ways to go to be winners

June 26, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

There's no formula for it, no blueprint, no established method for building it or measuring it. You just know it when you see it: A winning way. A knack for coming out ahead.

Teams with it are resourceful, clutch and play together, exceeding the sum of their parts. They invent ways to win, not ways to lose.

Teams without it end up frustrated, as the Orioles were last night after a 9-8 loss to the Yankees that resembled many of their losses to the reigning World Series champs over the past two seasons.

"I kinda feel for the club tonight," Orioles manager Ray Miller said. "We battled our butts off."

It wasn't enough. It's never enough.

The Yankees have the knack, the winning way. So do the Red Sox.

The Orioles? They just don't -- not often enough, anyway.

That was the lesson on display as the Sox won two of three from the Orioles at Camden Yards earlier in the week, and it was on display again last night.

Miller was right, the Orioles battled hard throughout a long, loud, lively night, overcoming another shaky performance by Scott Erickson to take the lead for the first time on Harold

Baines' three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh.

The Yankees didn't blink. They scored the tying run in the eighth, then scored the game-winner in the ninth when Shane Spencer homered off Mike Timlin.

Spencer had entered the game with a .207 batting average.

The knack. The winning way. The Yankees are now 12-4 against the Orioles over the past two seasons, and seven of the 12 wins are by one or two runs.

"We play them tough every time, it seems," Miller said, "but our record isn't too good."

Bingo.

The Yankees have it, the Orioles don't.

Oh, sure, the Orioles still are 28-26 since April 25, proving that their horrid early start probably was an aberration. And they have played with heart this week, coming from behind to beat the Sox on Albert Belle's homer Tuesday night, then slugging it out for more than 200 minutes last night.

But here's the reality: They came into this week with a chance to reinvent their season after winning 10 of 11 games, but they're 1-3 after losing last night and they're looking at a losing homestand unless they can beat David Cone and Orlando Hernandez today and tomorrow. Highly unlikely.

Basically, they looked an opportunity in the eye, a chance to gain ground at home -- and they blinked.

Yes, there are a slew of tangible reasons why they're 11-20 against the Yankees and Red Sox over the past two seasons and lagging behind them again in the standings this year. Their bullpen, their defense and their age, for instance.

But the intangible quality they're too often lacking is just as important.

They desperately needed to beat the Sox on Thursday night to win that series and establish the fact that they were serious about making up ground in the standings, but they couldn't do it despite circumstances weighted heavily in their favor.

The Sox started Mark Portugal, a pitcher with a losing record and a 5.56 ERA, against the Orioles' ace, Mike Mussina. But Portugal matched Mussina out for out, and with Nomar Garciaparra out with a strained left quadriceps and the Sox's lineup including such no-names as Brian Daubach, Creighton Gubanich, Lou Merloni, Damon Buford and Darren Lewis, the Sox delivered just enough big hits and defensive plays to win, 2-1.

The win underlined why the Sox are challenging the Yankees for the division lead and the Orioles are watching with a telescope.

Of course, the Sox already have come from behind to win 13 games this season, so it's no surprise when they invent a way to win.

They're an odd mixture of spare parts topped by a couple of All-Star pitchers, an unusual combination, but it worked last year when the Sox won 92 games and the AL wild card, and it's working again this year.

You know it when you see it. The Sox have the winning way. For whatever reason.

The Orioles didn't last year, when they finished with a losing record, and even though they have a slew of new players this year, the results are the same.

They find ways not to win the games they really need.

"That's what happens when you give up five walks and 16 hits," Miller said. "When you play the game the way it's supposed to be played, good things happen."

It appeared the Orioles were on their way last night when Baines pounded his long home run off the Yankees' Mike Stanton. Baines had never even gotten a hit off Stanton before that at-bat.

But the Orioles couldn't keep it up, especially in the face of the Yankees' relentless attack.

You could almost foresee what came next, especially since the game was already in the hands of Miller's fragile bullpen.

"Spencer could have popped up that fastball that Timlin threw him," Miller said. "But he hit it out. That's the way it goes."

Actually, that's the way it always goes. For the Yankees. And for the Orioles, too.

Pub Date: 6/26/99

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