O's Smith throws odds out door, slowly


BOSTON -- This was a pairing made in mismatch heaven.

The first-place Boston Red Sox against the last-place Baltimore Orioles. Roger Clemens and his 95-mph heater vs. Roy Smith with his backup changeup and carnival delivery.

It shaped up like a duel between a Mercedes and a moped. They put out a line on this one so the touts could have a day off.

But, wait a minute, somebody reversed the lock -- again.

When the Orioles left Beantown last night they did so with three wins in four tries over the long weekend. They sent the stumbling Red Sox reeling to the West Coast wondering how much longer their first-place standing can last.

And the Orioles went to Minnesota with five wins in their last six games and a second straight series victory -- pretty heady stuff for a team that was taking on dirt by the truckload only a week ago.

Make no mistake about it, Smith was the one who put the exclamation point on the Orioles' giddy weekend. He was the author of the 5-1 masterpiece that left Clemens in the role of a bit player. He was the one who set the table for runmakers Dwight Evans, Cal Ripken, Sam Horn and Randy Milligan, plus reliever Mark Williamson.

Smith threw curveballs, straight balls, slurve balls and swerve balls.

But no fastballs, they were reserved for Roger. A changeup from Clemens would be on its way back to the pitcher's mound before a Smith fastball reached the plate. But, if you could cut one of Clemens' hard ones in half you'd probably get two out pitches from Smith (2-0), an economy pitcher who doesn't believe in littering the bases with walks.

It took only 78 pitches for Smith to get into the eighth inning yesterday. He went to three balls on only two batters. When it was over in the mercurial time of two hours and 20 minutes, it was Smith who had the W and Clemens (7-3) who was saddled with the L.

This is the same Roy Smith who couldn't make the Orioles' staff out of spring training. "I'm not a guy who's going to knock your eyes open," said the righthander. "When I came over here I knew I'd have to wait my turn."

John Oates wasn't the manager when the Orioles made their final roster decisions, but he doesn't pretend he would have done anything different than his predecessor, Frank Robinson. "He [Smith] pitched good enough to make the club in spring training," said Oates, "but evidently we, as a staff, felt we had somebody better who could get out major-league hitters.

"If that was a high school game, you'd look at him and say he doesn't throw hard enough, bad body -- no prospect," Oates said. "If he had to go out and throw for a scout right now, he probably wouldn't get signed.

"But he's got four pitches he can throw for strikes at any time and he's been through these situations before."

Smith has pitched in the big leagues in eight different seasons, but only in 1989 and 1990 did he avoid time in the minor leagues. His win yesterday evened his lifetime record at 27-27, and the two teams on the field are most responsible. He was 4-0 against the Orioles the last two years and yesterday's win improved his career record against the Red Sox to 3-1.

After the Twins released him last year, Smith was underwhelmed by offers and signed a Triple A contract with the Orioles because it also carried a spring training invitation. "I knew they'd go with their own people first, whether they were winning or losing," said Smith. "I expected that, and when I came over expected them to be in the running -- so it wasn't like I was down there hoping they'd lose. I just knew I'd have to wait my turn."

Pitching coach Al Jackson liked what he saw in spring training, but as Smith said, not enough to move him ahead of the other candidates. "I don't know what we would have done with him coming out of spring training, the way the schedule was," said Jackson. "We couldn't even find a way to get [Bob] Milacki in. The schedule was brutal in that regard.

"He [Smith] was probably a lot better off [going to Rochester] in BTC the long run. What he was able to do was let us see him. We had six or seven starters, but we knew he was available and if somebody faltered we could go get him -- that's why he was signed."

Smith doesn't necessarily disagree with the notion he was better off not opening the season with the Orioles. "It was time well spent," Smith said of Rochester. "It gave me a time to re-tool some things.

"There were things that I had hoped to do last year [with Minnesota], but didn't get a chance to do because of the lockout and a groin injury. I got off to an 0-and-3 start and never really had the chance to work on those things.

"I talked to [Rochester pitching coach] Dick Bosman about what I had hoped to do last year, and couldn't. He worked with me, and I was able to get a lot accomplished.

"Hopefully," said Smith, "when I look back on my career a few years down the road I'll look back on it as a month and a half that made a difference."

A few months from now the Orioles would like to look back and say Smith helped them turn it around. "Winning three this weekend tells me we can play on the road, that we can beat good teams, that we can beat good pitchers," said Oates. "It gives us something to build on."

The last time the Orioles beat the Red Sox three times in a series in Boston Mike Flanagan was still a starting pitcher -- in Baltimore. It was the world championship year of 1983, and Oates was managing the Yankees' Triple A farm team in Columbus.

A year ago the Orioles could only beat the Red Sox four times in 13 games. A week ago they couldn't beat the Yankees once in three tries, and suddenly they've beaten the division co-leaders three out of four.

Nobody is ready to suggest this is a team ready to run off 14 straight wins as the Texas Rangers did recently. And it would be folly at this point to say the Orioles have resurfaced as contenders because they're still 11 games under .500 (18-29).

But this is the AL East, where the only two teams with winning records (Boston and Toronto) are only 7 1/2 games ahead of the last-place team.

In other words, the leaders are losing ground, and when that happens things have a way of getting muddled.

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