Orioles' upside-down recipe is cooking


Maybe you had not noticed that the Orioles' offense was as upside down as a sugar cone plopped on top of a scoop of ice cream. Then the Tigers intentionally walked Bill Ripken in the seventh inning last night at Camden Yards.

Sorry if you choked on your coffee there, but yes, that is correct. The Tigers pitched around a Ripken and it was not Cal. It was Bill, with his .245 career average, hitting eighth in the lineup. Only twice before in his six seasons in the major leagues had teams issued him an intentional walk.

There were several reasons the Tigers chose to pitch around him last night in the seventh inning of a scoreless game, but foremost among them was that he happens to be just about the hottest hitter on the team. Which is precisely the point.

Nothing is as it appears with this team, which won its sixth straight last night, 4-0, on the merits of Mike Mussina's pitching and a four-run rally that summed up the entire season: A season in which the Orioles are giving baseball convention a beating.

A season in which the bottom of their lineup is anything but, the top of their lineup is more like the middle, and the middle of their lineup is more like the bottom. Got all that?

"I'm sure teams have gotten along like this before," manager Johnny Oates said last night, "but I don't know if it has happened this consistently throughout an entire season. All I know is I'm not going to touch it. I'm not going to ask any questions."

Baseball convention says a team is constructed thus: The top of the order is for fast guys who get on base and score runs, the middle is for guys who drive in the fast guys, and the bottom is for guys who can't hit.

So go figure this: The Orioles' RBI leaders are Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson, the No. 2 and No. 1 hitters in the order. The bottom of the order, the Nos. 7-8-9 hitters, have more RBI than the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters. That is dog biting man in the baseball world, strictly bizarro stuff.

A team just does not contend with such upside-down composition. But this one does.

Once again last night, as has happened countless times this season, the bottom of the order made the difference. Jeff Tackett, batting ninth, broke the scoreless tie with a bases-loaded single to right field. Then Anderson drove in another run, Devereaux two. Ballgame.

Once again, the middle of the order was no factor in the rally. You know the story there. Cal Ripken, batting third, is emerging from a long slump and not having one of his blue-ribbon seasons. Glenn Davis had a huge July at No. 4 in the order, but he is still not driving in that many runs. And Randy Milligan, batting fifth, has only eight RBI in the past 39 games.

Milligan is among the league leaders in walks, though, and in fact, it was his walk that began the game-winning rally last night. He has walked an astounding 38 times in the past 37 games. It is not what you normally want from your No. 5 hitter, but it is making a difference. Anyway, with this team, you just don't ask questions.

"The chemistry, whatever it is, is working for us," Oates said. "You would be tempted to tinker [with the lineup] it if wasn't, but it's been working all season."

Indeed. The Orioles are third in the league in runs scored behind Minnesota and Detroit, and they lead the majors in runners left on base. They certainly stir it up. The high number of runners left on base means they could be scoring even more -- it is testimony to the inability of the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters to come through. But with the team 16 games over .500, are you going to question what is happening?

"Why change anything?" Oates said. "We have all nine positions in the order with close to 50 RBI. That's just great from my standpoint. That means the other team can't pitch around anyone. They don't know who is hot. They don't know who is liable to come through on a given night."

If ever a moment drove that point home, no pun intended, it was Bill Ripken's intentional walk. The Orioles had runners on second and third with one out. Ripken was batting just .241, but had been hitting .310 since July 1, with eight RBI in seven games. His was an unmistakeably hot bat at No. 8 in the order.

Tigers manager Sparky Anderson chose to walk him also because it created a force play at every base, and because Tackett, batting next, was a slower runner and more likely to hit into a double play. But let's not get too carried away here. For Bill Ripken, it was just the third intentional walk in more than 2,000 career at-bats.

Anyway, the Tigers got burned and the bottom of the order was the story again. You can wonder whether a team really can contend all the way to October without more from the middle of VTC the lineup. A legitimate concern. If Cal Ripken does not warm up and Milligan continues to walk to first, the Orioles might need Davis to fill the RBI hole in the middle of the order. Then again, maybe not.

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