Quick getaway distances Orioles from '91 start

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first month of the 1992 season is over, and the Orioles are still in the hunt, which is quite an improvement over the season past.

It is quite an achievement, too, considering the list of setbacks that easily could have sent them into another early tailspin.

First baseman Glenn Davis, who was expected to be a cornerstone of the lineup, played just one game in April and still has no firm timetable for his return from the disabled list.

Relief pitchers Jim Poole and Mark Williamson, important members of a bullpen that was one of the few bright spots of 1991, are sidelined indefinitely with arm problems.

First baseman Randy Milligan and second baseman Bill Ripken were sidelined temporarily after a freak collision in Kansas City that sent a shiver through the entire organization.

American League MVP Cal Ripken got off to a slow start, and only now is swinging the bat with any consistency.

But the Orioles closed April with a 6-3 road trip and the most victories (13) of any Orioles team since the 1979 AL championship season. Go figure.

The Orioles haven't won anything yet except a little respect, but even that is a major stride for a team that has finished higher than fourth place just once since 1983. In 3 1/2 weeks, they have bridged a credibility gap that had steadily widened since the "Why Not?" season of 1989.

"I've really liked the attitude of the club as a whole," manager Johnny Oates said. "With Glenn out and Poole out and Willie [Bill Ripken] out and Randy out, they continued to battle no matter what lineup we put out there."

The results have been impressive, especially in contrast to the first month of last season, when the Orioles went 6-12 and began their rapid slide to the lower reaches of the AL East standings.

Leadoff hitter Brady Anderson has provided the spark. Catcher Chris Hoiles has turned on the power. Rick Sutcliffe and the four young guns that fill out the starting rotation have kept the motor running smoothly. The Orioles may not have every option available, but Oates has reached all the way down to the 25th man on the roster to get them off to a start worthy of their shiny new ballpark.

It may be too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but there is little question that the club is far better equipped to contend than it had been at any time in the previous five years -- including 1989. The starting rotation has both talent and depth, and the starting lineup is performing adequately at something less than full strength.

"I think we can compete," Oates said. "With our starting pitching, day in and day out, we may not match up with Toronto, but I think we can compete in this division."

The starting rotation has done a complete about-face in a matter of months. The Orioles spent the 1991 season trying to find five pitchers who could get them past the third inning. So far, they have had only three games in which the starting pitcher failed to get to the sixth.

Sutcliffe has provided the leadership that Oates was looking for when he sold the front office on the free-agent right-hander in December. He was 3-2 with a 2.65 ERA in April, delivering as many complete games in his first four starts (three) as 1991 team leader Bob Milacki did all year.

He has delivered in the clubhouse as well. He is here because Oates said he would have a positive effect on the youthful nucleus of the pitching staff, and it has turned out just that way. But don't shortchange pitching coach Dick Bosman on this score. He has had a tremendous impact on the development of Milacki, Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Jose Mesa -- all major contributors to the club's solid start.

Mussina has been the most consistent pitcher on the club, his solid performance dating to his entry into the starting rotation last August. He won all three of his April decisions, and gave up only one run in three of his first four starts.

"He's only going to get better," said Oates, whose easygoing style seems to be a perfect fit for a group of young pitchers who have been asked to mature in a hurry. "McDonald has thrown well. Mesa has been very good. And I'm satisfied that Sutcliffe is going to have a good year for us."

The club's starters have averaged 6 2/3 innings per start and have pitched into the eighth inning in 10 of the first 21 games. They are 10-6 with a respectable 3.19 ERA, a turnaround from 1991. Last year, the Orioles rotation had the worst ERA in the major leagues, giving up more than five earned runs per game.

The bullpen remains solid, despite the loss of Poole and Williamson. Submariner Todd Frohwirth has picked up where he left off last year. Left-hander Mike Flanagan has given up just three hits in 5 1/3 innings. Middle relievers Storm Davis and Alan Mills have combined to give up just four earned runs in 20 2/3 innings.

For once, there is strength in numbers, even if the roster was thinned by a series of injuries. Milligan stepped in and has played well in place of Glenn Davis. David Segui stepped in and played well when Milligan spent a week shaking off the aftereffects of his collision with Bill Ripken.

Oates gives a lot of credit for the Orioles' strong start to his bench. The battle for the final utility infield role may have seemed insignificant during spring training, but it turned out to be pivotal. Newcomer Mark McLemore pushed Juan Bell back into the minor leagues and has made a major contribution.

He's batting .364 and has driven in eight runs in a varied role that has included two pinch hits (and two big RBI) in four at-bats and several strong offensive performances as a sometime starter at second base.

Tim Hulett also has been productive, despite his .242 average.

"I was hoping to come out of spring training with a set lineup," Oates said. "I haven't been able to do that, but that has given me an opportunity to find out more about the other guys.

"We've got some great role players. McLemore has done very well. Segui has done well. Hulett has come off the bench and done a good job. Jeff Tackett has caught a couple of good games for us. They all have played well."

Perhaps the most positive development of the season's opening month was the emergence of Anderson as a competent leadoff and clutch hitter. He ranks among the league leaders with 18 RBI and set a club record with five triples in April. He leads the team in several offensive categories, including RBI, total bases (45) and steals (seven).

Hoiles also has made his point at the plate with five home runs.

The strong performances of Anderson and Hoiles have turned the eighth, ninth and leadoff spots into the heart of the Orioles batting order. This is particularly good news to Oates, who is confident that Cal Ripken, Milligan and, eventually, Glenn Davis will join in the fun.

If there has been any disappointment, Oates points to the three-game series in Toronto, when the club was swept by the Blue Jays. That series left the Orioles' claim to contention suspect, since the Blue Jays are heavily favored to win the division.

"Those three games were the most disappointing," Oates said. "The three pitchers they sent against us were quality pitchers, but I thought they were beatable. I don't think any of them were on their game.

"The bottom line is, they beat us three straight, but they weren't that impressive."

He thought about that for a moment and realized the implications.

"Maybe that's bad news," Oates continued, "because if they can win three straight without being impressive, what are the going to be like when they are?"

Pieces of April

How Orioles starting pitchers and utility players performed in April 1991 and April 1992:

Starting pitchers

1991

..... .....W-L..... ERA.... G.... CG.... IP

Mesa.... .... 1-3..... 3.33... 4.... 0..... 24.1

Robinson .... 1-2..... 4.02... 3.... 0..... 15.2

Ballard...... 2-2..... 4.40... 5.... 0..... 30.2

Johnson...... 1-3..... 9.82... 4.... 0..... 18.1

McDonald..... 0-1..... 12.27.. 2.... 0..... 7.1

1992

Mussina...... 3-0..... 2.37... 4.... 1..... 30.1

Sutcliffe.... 3-2..... 2.65... 5.... 3..... 37.1

Mesa.... .... 1-2..... 3.26... 3.... 0..... 19.1

McDonald .... 2-0..... 3.47... 4.... 1..... 23.1

Milacki...... 1-2..... 5.33... 5.... 0..... 27.0

Utility players

1991

.......... BA... AB... R... H... HR... RBI

Whitt...... .308... 13... 1... 4.... 0.... 0

Hoiles..... .147... 34... 0... 5.... 0.... 0

Bell....... .143... 14... 0... 2.... 0.... 0

Hulett..... .143.... 7... 1... 1.... 1.... 1

Melvin..... .143... 21... 0... 3.... 0.... 1

1992

McLemore... .364... 33... 8.. 12.... 0.... 8

Hulett..... .242... 33... 2... 8.... 0.... 3

Segui...... .222... 45... 5.. 10.... 0.... 4

Tackett.... .200.... 5... 2... 1.... 1.... 1

Mercedes... .050... 20... 4... 1.... 0.... 0

Martinez... .000... 13... 3... 0.... 0.... 1

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