Anyone care to mention magic word?

May 03, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Are the Orioles for real?

Their age, defense and pitching lapses suggest no.

Their ability to repeatedly overcome such deficiencies suggests yes.

They did it again last night, scoring twice in the ninth inning off Anaheim closer Troy Percival to defeat the Angels, 7-6.

Last season, they found ways to lose.

This season, they find ways to win, more often than not.

`To get to the playoffs, you've got to win games like this," catcher Charles Johnson said. "During the course of the year, it will take games like this to get us where we need to be."

Where exactly is that? There's no way of knowing. But the Orioles are worth watching for the first time since 1997. Heartless at times last season, their new manager says they've got "a lot of heart."

They blew a 5-0 lead last night, delivered another sloppy defensive performance and lost American League on-base percentage leader Will Clark to a strained left hamstring.

Clark is likely headed to the disabled list. Sidney Ponson remains an enigma. Albert Belle is batting a punchless .253. But the Orioles press on, undaunted.

They're 10-2 at Camden Yards this season, and they're winning games on ninth-inning homers, ninth-inning balks and ninth-inning comebacks against dominant closers.

Percival entered the game 6-for-6 in save opportunities. But he faced five batters in the ninth and didn't record an out.

Jeff Conine began the inning with what manager Mike Hargrove described as a "tremendous at-bat," drawing a walk on a 3-2 count.

Cal Ripken followed with a booming RBI double to the left-center field gap, tying the score with his third significant ninth-inning hit in the last two weeks.

Pinch-hitter Harold Baines then received an intentional walk, and Johnson loaded the bases with a two-strike single, setting the stage for Mike (RBI) Bordick.

The Angels brought in an extra infielder from the outfield, hoping to cut down the winning run at the plate.

"When I first looked up, I didn't know what the heck to do," Bordick said.

But then he did what he has done all season, slicing Percival's first pitch for a game-winning single down the right-field line, increasing his American League-leading total to 30 RBIs.

Are the Orioles for real?

Who better to ask than the reincarnation of Hack Wilson?

"You like to believe right from the get-go that you're a contender," Bordick said. "We played some pretty good baseball through the month of April. We were in a lot of games. Our record could have been better.

"I don't know how to look at tonight. We had the lead, didn't play that great and let it slip away. But we were able to battle back. That says a lot."

The bullpen is still a question, but Buddy Groom worked 1 1/3 scoreless innings last night and Mike Trombley needed only five pitches to retire the Angels in the ninth and keep the Orioles within one run.

Tonight's starter, Jason Johnson, has produced two quality starts since returning from Triple A Rochester, and the projected rotation finally will be in place once Scott Erickson comes off the disabled list Friday.

But let's not get carried away just yet.

No question, the Orioles' 15-10 record is better than anyone expected. But it's still not clear whether this team can actually contend when so many things -- positive and negative -- are happening at once.

A six-game trip to New York and Toronto following this series could prove telling, and the pitching matchups against the Yankees -- Erickson vs. Orlando Hernandez, Pat Rapp vs. Roger Clemens and Sydney Ponson vs. Ramiro Mendoza -- will not be favorable.

Ponson has a 6.75 ERA in two career appearances at Yankee Stadium, and he will be coming off back-to-back clunkers against Chicago and Anaheim, not that last night was entirely his fault.

"We didn't play well defensively at all," Hargrove said. "It's like we were still somewhere on our day off."

The Orioles failed to turn a double play in the Angels' two-run sixth, and Ripken was unable to throw out Scott Spiezio on a slow chopper that loaded the bases.

Left fielder B.J. Surhoff then dropped a fly ball by Adam Kennedy to set up the Angels' four-run seventh, and Bordick made a less harmful error later in the inning after Groom picked off Spiezio.

Surhoff and Bordick are two of the Orioles' most reliable defenders -- Surhoff made a terrific sliding catch to end the sixth, and had gone 250 games without an error before his misplay in the seventh.

But the defense is above average at only catcher, shortstop and left, and even on a night when the Orioles turned four double plays, their inadequacies showed.

Of course, Ponson still was pitching with a three-run lead after Surhoff's misplay enabled the Angels to put runners on second and third with none out in the seventh.

Surhoff made a running catch in foul territory to retire Mo Vaughn, but Tim Salmon followed with a three-run homer, and Troy Glaus added a towering bases-empty shot with two outs to give the Angels the lead.

Are the Orioles for real?

You can argue it either way.

But after two painful seasons, merely posing the question is enough.

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