Hitters tee off, helping Orioles play up to par


I will confess to being among the large legion of those who flail miserably at golf. My average round is a symphony of dubs, flubs and nubs. Once a round, though, I will accidentally stumble onto paradise, drive a ball high and long down the middle of the fairway, put an iron on the green and two-putt for par. And my reaction is always the same: Hey, this is an easy game.

See, when you actually buy into the basic concept and hit the ball where it is aimed a couple of times in a row, golf seems as simple as a nursery rhyme. One, two, three, par. The only problem is those other hundred or so shots sprayed randomly and sometimes viciously at trees, dogs and various passers-by. If not for those, golf would be as easy as marbles. You bet.

All of which brings us to the Orioles. Yes, yes, it really does bring us to the Orioles. Suddenly, see, in the middle of this long, gray season, the Orioles' hitters have gotten hot. At last. They are hitting .280 these past two weeks, and, not coincidentally, the club has won nine of 14 games. The very game they play, which has so often seemed so defeating this season, suddenly has become easy. Hey, easy.

Take yesterday's 7-3 defeat of those brawlin' Boston Red Sox. As 44,000 watched on a sunny, soaked-shirt afternoon, the Orioles hit two home runs and four doubles. They had 15 base-runners. They scored in five innings. It helped immeasurably that Roy Smith pitched a shutout into the sixth and the bullpen held up, but it was the offense, once again, that gave the afternoon its definition. Made it an easy game.

"It sure is nice to look up on the scoreboard and see six or seven runs," manager John Oates said. "We've struggled with the bats this year, and now we're hot. We've worked hard to correct the [hitting problems], but who can explain it? No one has ever come up with an explanation for why entire teams go into slumps together and then turn around and start hitting together. This is just a game of cycles."

True enough, and the Orioles certainly will enjoy this one, which sure beats the miserable one in which they were stuck for the first two months of the season, pushing them far behind the leaders in the major leagues' worst division. "When you're hot, you should just enjoy it," Oates said, "because the time is always coming when you won't be hot again."

Again: True enough, which brings us to the heart of the issue: How long we should expect this current cycle to last. One more game? The rest of the season? Somewhere in between? (The house bet.) In other words, just how easy is the average game going to be for this team?

Please take note of some essentials. The Orioles are doing this without Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans, who constitute the entirety of the club's winter retooling. Except for a couple of changes, such as Mickey Tettleton out and Leo Gomez in (let's have a moment of silence for the Mick, whom the Orioles didn't want to pay, and who has seven homers and 13 RBI in his past eight games), the nucleus of the current lineup is the same as it was last year. And last year's team finished 13th in the league in batting. So this up cycle is just an aberration that should end soon, right?

Not necessarily, according to the manager. "What we didn't do last year was hit with men on base," Oates said. "We got people where we wanted them, just didn't get them home." He is correct. The Orioles left more runners on base than 23 other major-league teams. Only Boston and Philadelphia left more.

Oates' point is that this team, without Davis and Evans, is still capable of more offense than it showed in 1990 and the first part of this season. "If we can do a better job of hitting with men on base, that is," Oates said. (True enough, for the Orioles again are among the left-on-base leaders this season. Going into play yesterday, only three teams in the majors had more.)

It is, thus, absolutely no coincidence that the improved offense is coming at the same time as Randy Milligan is breaking out of his season-long slump. Also Sam Horn, to a lesser degree. Milligan, Horn and Cal Ripken are the primary run-producers on an Orioles team without Davis and Evans. Ripken did it alone for the first two months of the season. Now, he is getting help. Milligan has 10 RBI in the past six games.

"Milligan is the key," Oates said. "When you've got a guy who can produce the kind of offense he's shown he can produce, you're really sunk if you don't get it from him. You're also in good shape when he does produce for you. Randy is looking real good right now. So is Sam. Sam is in a nice groove."

And so are the Orioles. A nice groove. The games seem easy, at least most of them do. All they need is some credible starting pitching (not that they can count on it) and they're right there most nights, with a solid chance to win. The Red Sox are the ones contending for the division lead, but the Orioles have won more games in June. They're the ones hitting better, playing solid baseball.

The issue, of course, is whether this run of hits constitutes the rare par in a plus-100 round of golf, or the start of a string of pars. There is no reason to expect a downturn as long as Milligan and Ripken are hitting, but it would be wrong to expect too much from an Orioles team that began dropping from contention with the first pitch of the season, and, let's face it, has shown little penchant for hitting consistently with men on base. We shall see. As Yogi Berra might have said, "Making predictions is tough, especially about the future."

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