This year, playoffs won't be missing Lynx

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Team meets all challenges

next obstacle is Pawtucket

Minor League Baseball

September 01, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Through all the games played in frigid temperatures, in a near-empty stadium in April, with a roster that kept changing like a car's odometer, the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx never reached for excuses.

Their only interest was reaching the International League playoffs for the first time since winning the 1995 Governors Cup.

They've made it, clinching the wild card with Saturday's 6-3 win over Buffalo. Matt Riley struck out eight over 6 1/3 innings, Geronimo Gil hit his first home run since the Orioles sent him down and Darwin Cubillan registered his 20th save.

Ottawa will face Pawtucket, the Boston Red Sox's top affiliate, Wednesday in the opening game.

The Lynx ran off a franchise-record 10 consecutive wins, a streak that ended with Friday's 6-4 loss to Buffalo. They still had a shot at winning the North Division until Pawtucket clinched first place that same night.

Given all the adversity this season, including a 5-11 start, Ottawa gladly will settle for the wild card. Just making the playoffs is quite an achievement, considering that this is the Lynx's first season with the Orioles. The Rochester Red Wings bailed after 42 years and five straight losing seasons, including a 55-89 record and last-place finish in 2002.

Injuries and promotions to the major league roster forced the Lynx into 123 player transactions this season, their first with Gary Allenson as manager.

Outfielder Darnell McDonald, the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2002, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Catcher Izzy Molina appeared in only three games before having bone chips removed from his elbow.

Shortstop Felix Escalona lasted nine after the Orioles claimed him off waivers from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, because of surgery on his right knee. Infielder Eddy Garabito's pulled hamstring won't allow him to return, either.

Closer Mike Garcia left the team twice to pitch in Mexico. Starter Rigo Beltran departed so he could pitch for Mexico in the Pan American Games.

In less than a week, the Orioles siphoned first baseman Carlos Mendez, infielder Brian Roberts and center fielder Luis Matos off the roster. Mendez was leading the league in hitting.

"That can put a little crimp in your style," Allenson said.

Tim Raines Jr. moved up from the Double-A Bowie Baysox to play center, and the Orioles eventually took him, too. His replacement, Ruben Rivera, was hitting .195 at Bowie but entered yesterday batting .400 with two homers in 12 games with the Lynx.

"Ruben's here," Allenson said, "and we haven't missed a beat."

Doc Rodgers, the Orioles' director of minor league operations, did his best to stock the Lynx's roster without rushing prospects to a higher level.

Outfielder B.J. Littleton made the jump from the lower Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds. Infielder Hugh Quattlebaum and catcher Mike Seestedt arrived from the Single-A Frederick Keys.

Joey Hammond, who began the year with Double-A Bowie, has played all four infield positions, left field and right field. "I got him to be a utility-type guy," Allenson said, "and I can't get him out of the lineup."

Hammond was needed in the outfield because the Lynx were running out of players. The Orioles recalled Raines, Matos, Jack Cust and Larry Bigbie. They returned Mendez and third baseman Jose Leon, but they needed catcher Robert Machado and pitchers Eric DuBose, Rick Bauer and Hector Carrasco.

"It's been difficult," Allenson said, "but it's nothing that other teams aren't doing, too."

Not every team will continue playing into September.

"At one time we have guys like Roberts, Matos, Mendez, Leon Bigbie," Allenson said. "When I saw them in spring training, I thought, `Man, we could be pretty good.' "

The Lynx have stayed that way despite a lineup that includes Raul Casanova as the cleanup hitter and Luis Lopez at shortstop. Both were released by the Orioles after last season but have been invaluable at Triple-A.

When the Orioles purchased Raines' contract last week, it looked like a major blow to the Lynx's playoff hopes. He was hitting .299 with 23 steals, and Allenson coveted his leadoff skills and Gold Glove-caliber defense.

"When we lost Raines, I thought, `That's probably it. We're not going to make it,' " Allenson said.

Instead, Napoleon Calzado moved atop the order and was batting .318 going into yesterday - 53 points higher than his average at Bowie.

Outfielder Pedro Swann, 32, has been instrumental in holding the Lynx together through the defections and surgeries. An .071 career hitter in 17 major league games with the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays, compared with .290 in the minors before this season, Swann was blocked by McDonald, Matos, Bigbie and Cust.

Finally given a chance to play, he was hitting .280 with 21 doubles, two triples, 10 homers and 53 RBIs in 119 games.

"He can be a little streaky, but he works out of it," Allenson said. "He's made some of the biggest plays I've ever seen without the bat. His instincts on the field are extraordinary, and he's a leader in the clubhouse."

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