Grapefruit success has O's ripe for real thing

14-2 surge raises hopes vs. Yanks, Sox in April

March 25, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Bring on the Yankees.

The Orioles are dominating exhibition play, and it's almost time for the real thing.

With Opening Day one week away, this team that lost 98 games a year ago says it actually looks forward to an April schedule that begins with three games against the New York Yankees, followed by three against the Boston Red Sox.

"If we play the same way against the Yankees and Boston that we're playing now, we're going to be all right," Orioles pitcher Josh Towers said.

With a 6-2 victory yesterday over the New York Mets, the Orioles have won 14 of their past 16 Grapefruit League games.

No one pretends this means very much. After all, the Orioles went 18-13 during spring training last year. But manager Mike Hargrove likes a lot of what he's seen, especially the pitching and defense.

The Orioles lead the American League with a 3.22 ERA.

They also have the fewest errors in the AL, with 13.

"It's not just that we've been winning, but the way we've been winning," Hargrove said. "It's certainly encouraging to know we have the ability to do what we've done, which is throw strikes and catch the balls we're supposed to catch."

Inherent in any team's spring success is fear that all the confidence gained will quickly fade with a bad start to the regular season. The Orioles are a relatively young team coming off their worst year since 1988, and they'll play an April schedule that includes six games with the Yankees and eight with the Red Sox.

A year ago, the Orioles went 5-13 against the Yankees and 9-10 against Boston. "You can look at the glass as half-empty or half-full," Hargrove said. "We've got to play each of those teams 19 times this year anyway. We're getting them early on. Maybe they won't be at the top of their game."

Starting next Monday at Camden Yards, the Orioles are scheduled to face Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Pedro Martinez in four of their first six games. That foursome has combined for 691 career wins, so logic says the Orioles could get off to a slow start.

How important is that? It depends on the team. The Oakland Athletics started last season 2-10 and finished 102-60, good enough to win the AL wild card by 17 games.

"Maybe it didn't matter for the A's," Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick said. "But it's important for us to win and build confidence and maintain that."

The Orioles do get six games in April against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the one AL East team they had a winning record against last season. The Orioles were 10-9 against Tampa Bay and under .500 against the other three divisional opponents, including 7-12 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

But regardless of how the Orioles start, Bordick and his fellow veterans are more concerned about how they finish.

"Our season isn't going to be determined by our first three games with the Yankees," Bordick said. "It's a long season, and there's going to be ups and downs. We just have to try to be as consistent as possible."

After a 6-7 start, the Orioles finished April with a 12-14 record last year. They were near .500 until July, when a slew of injuries sent the team into a spiral that ended with the team sitting 63-98.

Towers, 25, said that nightmarish finish helped prepare the Orioles to handle the bad stretches when they come.

"Sometimes when you lose, you learn the most," Towers said. "When you struggle, you've got to climb out of that cellar. We did that a few times last year, coming back to .500 or one game below .500. I think the young guys took a lot out of it."

This past week, Orioles owner Peter Angelos said he expects this year's team to play at least .500. And even with a tough April on the horizon, that comment met no disagreement within the clubhouse.

"I think everyone in here knows that we have a lot better team than people think we have," veteran Jeff Conine said. "All the people think this team's not going to do anything, but I think we're going to surprise some people."

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