And they're off... With Seattle slew, O's set for race


It's only May, but romance is heavy in the air at Camden Yards.

The Orioles can only hope it's the real thing and not some derivation of ragweed.

Here they are, four weeks into the 1992 season, and they can't be beaten. Not at home, anyway. Not with Cal Ripken and Randy Milligan banging home runs to the farthest reaches of Oriole Park. Not with Gregg Olson stomping out another would-be forest fire. Not with utilitymen Mark McLemore and Tim Hulett playing taps on the remnants of Seattle's once-proud pitching staff.

The Orioles' magical mystery tour hit overdrive yesterday with an 8-6, catch-us-if-you-can victory over the Mariners. The three-game weekend sweep of Seattle produced two sellouts at the Orioles' new park and a two-day stay in first place in the American League East, a scant 13 percentage points ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays. Next up, the Texas Rangers, in for a two-game series starting tonight (7:35, HTS).

The Orioles have won five in a row, 13 of their last 16. They are 9-1 at Camden Yards -- their best home start ever -- and haven't lost here since the season-opening series a month ago. Who would have thought it?

Not even shortstop Cal Ripken.

"No way before the season started did we think we'd be doing this well this fast," Ripken said after sending his first Camden Yards homer (second of the season) deep into the bleachers in left in the second inning to get the Orioles off to a 6-0 start. He also triggered a five-run flurry in the first with a double down the leftfield line.

It's not a bad way to break in a new ballpark, of course. With the Orioles at the top of their game, the fans are perched expectantly at the edge of their seats. Yesterday's sellout crowd of 45,352 was the fourth of the season. And in 10 home dates, the Orioles are averaging 44,169. Projected over a full season, it is enough to boggle the mind, not to mention the club's bank account. They are on a pace to draw 3.57 million fans and shatter last year's attendance record of 2.55 million, that for a sixth-place team.

"I get excited just driving down here knowing that there will be 40,000 people in the stands," manager John Oates said. "It makes me stay on top of every pitch, every situation. Not that I wouldn't do it anyway, but when you have a full house, you want to put on a good show."

The Orioles put on a wonderful show all weekend long. In three games against Seattle's ragged pitching, they clubbed nine home runs and turned what many thought to be a pitchers' paradise into a hitters' haven. The Orioles have outscored the opposition at Camden Yards 60-20, and are averaging a major-league high 5.2 runs per game overall.

"It's a lot easier to hit when your hands aren't cold and stiff," Milligan said after driving his third home run of the season over the centerfield fence, a 400-foot-plus shot that gave the Orioles a 7-4 lead in the seventh.

It's a lot easier to hit when your head isn't ringing like a church bell, too. Milligan, the resilient first baseman, has been on a tear since coming back from his April 22 collision with teammate Bill Ripken, a collision that left him with a mild concussion, a bruised right cheek and stretched nerves in his right shoulder.

Since returning, Milligan has reached base safely 10 times in three games, and is hitting .444 (4-for-9) with five runs scored and four RBIs. He beat Minnesota last week with a ninth-inning single in one of those games, and his home run yesterday turned out to be decisive. Milligan, who is hitting .357 with runners in scoring position, also had a two-run single in the first.

"I never had the fear factor," Milligan said, explaining his quick comeback. "When I came back, I tried to relax and do things naturally. I never had any anxiety."

The Orioles were equally resilient yesterday. When Hulett, filling in at third base for Leo Gomez, muffed a potential inning-ending, double-play ground ball in the fourth, Seattle struck for four runs to make a game of it.

Starter Mike Mussina (4-0) took a 7-4 lead into the eighth, when he needed relief help. Three pitchers later, Olson came out of the bullpen to stifle the Mariners' two-run uprising. He struck out pinch hitter Pete O'Brien on three sinkers and got Rich Amaral to bounce into a forceout. In the ninth, he struck out Kevin Mitchell, the potential tying run, on three straight curveballs on the outside part of the plate.

It was Olson's fifth save of the season and 100th of his career. At 25 years and 204 days old, Olson became the youngest major-league pitcher to record 100 saves, surpassing Bruce Sutter, who was 26 years, 224 days old when he did it.

These Orioles are ingenious when it comes to finding ways to win. In addition to the big bats of Ripken and Milligan, they got key contributions from McLemore and Hulett, as well. McLemore dropped a perfect suicide-squeeze bunt in the eighth inning to score Hulett with a big insurance run at 8-6.

Hulett, atoning for a two-error day in the field, had three hits, including a double and a triple, and three RBIs.

So even when the Orioles messed up, things turned out OK. Read into it what you will.

"It's still early," Milligan said. "It's so early, you can't predict anything down the line. But what we're starting to build is confidence. Whoever is in the lineup is going to do the job. We have faith in each other."

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