Miller senses job is history

Pessimistic on option, manager reflects on O's struggles, streak

September 21, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Speaking of Cal Ripken's breakneck run at 3,000 career hits, manager Ray Miller recently contemplated its significance and said succinctly: "I'd like to see it happen."

An enigma to the end, the Orioles topped an 11-game winning streak on Sunday, the same day their postseason chances died. Sunday's three singles allowed Ripken to move to within 10 hits of the career milestone. Now, as he supervises the franchise's longest run since 1987, Miller increasingly refers to his tenure as manager in the past tense.

Miller's option for next season must be exercised or denied within 72 hours of the Orioles' Oct. 3 finale. With an announcement expected the day before the postseason begins, Miller suggests that next season's team should be less dependent on bullpen "guys in their late 30s" and more mindful of the significance of speedy position players.

The manager also implied last weekend that ownership's marketing concerns, especially at home, influenced the way he worked his bullpen during this season's hellish first half.

"I think it's very hard to have three or four guys in their late 30s at the same time," said Miller, referring to Jesse Orosco (42), the released Heathcliff Slocumb (33), Mike Fetters (34) and even 29-year-old Arthur Rhodes. "A lot of times you looked out there and guys couldn't pitch [because of injury or wear]. You're rather limited."

Miller was reminded of how he often praised Jim Leyland for knowing when to sacrifice one game, allowing a single pitcher to absorb a beating, to preserve his bullpen for the next several days.

"In Pittsburgh, Jimmy never had to worry about playing in front of 48,000 people," said Miller, Leyland's pitching coach with the Pittsburgh Pirates. "A lot of times, Leyland was playing in front of 7,000 people at home.

"The thing Jimmy was good at was getting his team back in it whether it was down six runs or not. He would bunt and hit-and-run to put pressure on the other team. Invariably, he would get the tying run to the plate late in the game. I tried those things when we weren't playing well. If we were playing well, I'd leave 'em alone."

At the same time Miller sees his managerial tenure ending, he also watches as the Orioles approach season bests in team average and ERA. Once overmatched in close games, an expanded roster has made them potent in tight quarters.

With their remaining 14 games coming against the Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, the 72-76 Orioles have an opportunity to shape the postseason. A 9-5 finish would salvage a .500 record and a 7-7 conclusion would allow them to match last season's 79-83 mark.

"We've known all along with the team we've got we could win. We just didn't," said closer Mike Timlin, who saved all three games of last weekend's sweep of the Anaheim Angels.

"We've made bad mistakes. I've lost a few games myself. I've made bad pitches. But that's done. I can think about what I did and I correct it in my head. But I can't correct it on the stat sheet. All we can do is what we did today: shut the brain down, take a day off and crank it back up against Texas."

The Rangers, virtually assured the AL West title, are playing for position. The A's, Red Sox and Yankees are in a scrum that will produce two postseason entries. The $84 million Orioles get to play spoilers.

"If we have a chance to impact, we'll take it," said Timlin, whose second-half performance mirrors that of an improved and revamped bullpen. "It's still a tight race between Boston and New York. We have a chance to influence it. It gives you something to look forward to. Maybe we can make a difference. Yeah, we're out of the race, but we're not out of the game."

Holdovers from 1998 can at least rejoice that there has been no repeat of last season's late tank job, when a clubhouse full of pending free agents went 10-23 after fading from wild-card contention.

"I think we're having a lot more fun playing," said pitcher Mike Mussina (16-7), whose chase of a first 20-win season ended with Sunday's no-decision in Anaheim. "If we were struggling the way we were struggling in August, these last couple weeks would be really tough. But we've mixed some youth in with veterans and we're getting some better pitching. We're getting the hitting we need."

Clubhouse theories abound regarding the recent surge. Miller points to the September infusion of young arms and legs that has allowed him greater maneuverability in late innings. Unfortunately, major-league rules don't permit a 35-man roster the entire season.

Others believe it's a matter of late-arriving chemistry on a team that underwent extensive remodeling last winter. The Orioles enter the season's final two weeks 36-25 since the All-Star break. The division-leading Yankees are 38-25 in the same span.

"I don't think we played as a team. We were the Orioles, but we were not a team of Orioles. Now we're playing more like a team. We're playing pretty well together," Timlin said.

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