A run for first at a place in the Sky Orioles off to Dome to pry lead from Jays

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It is a little early for a divisional showdown, but the next four days could define the 1992 season for the Orioles. No one has to remind them that SkyDome has been their Waterloo before.

The Toronto Blue Jays have stood atop the American League East for much of the season and have been there continuously since June 19. The Orioles have been the only other team to visit first place since early April, but they will need to prove they can survive SkyDome to get back there any time soon.

"We've certainly got more bad memories there than good," first baseman Randy Milligan said.

Flashback: The last time the Orioles were in contention in the AL East was in 1989, when they went into Toronto for the final weekend of the season. They came from ahead to lose the first two games and along with them their Cinderella attempt to go from last to first in one year.

Flash-not-so-far-back: SkyDome was the first road stop of the 1992 season for the Orioles, and it didn't go well. The Blue Jays came from behind against stopper Gregg Olson in the series opener and went on to win all three games. No one, at the time, was surprised, because the Blue Jays were considered a prohibitive favorite to win the division and the Orioles were considered a certain also-ran.

"We're a different team now," pitcher Rick Sutcliffe said. "When we went in there the last time, we went in there believing everything everyone was writing about them -- how they were going to walk away with it. It's different now."

The Orioles have been in either first or second place since April 29. They have won seven of their past nine games to pull within two of first place going into tonight's matchup between Mike Mussina (11-4) and struggling Blue Jays right-hander Todd Stottlemyre (6-7). They are in position to make a serious move, but it will take a strong performance during the next four days to push them back to the top of the divisional ladder.

Yesterday's 10-inning, 3-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians helped. The Blue Jays were hammered again by the Detroit Tigers, and that allowed the Orioles to inch closer. The difference between a two-game deficit and a three-game deficit is, of course, one game, but that seemingly subtle move may have a significant psychological benefit.

"I'm glad we got it down to two," Milligan said. "Going in at three would have put pressure on us to win the series."

There will be pressure, but a split will not seriously injure the

Orioles' chances of overtaking the Blue Jays during the final seven weeks of the season. Even losing three of four wouldn't be disastrous. No one in the Orioles clubhouse wants to think in such negative terms, but the club has positioned itself so that this is not a must-win series.

Things could have been even better but for the stubborn Indians, who refused to behave like a last-place club this weekend. The Blue Jays left an opening, and the Orioles had to go into extra innings yesterday to do anything about it. If they had won a game they should have won on Friday night, they would be in position to apply some serious pressure on a Toronto team that )) has to be feeling the weight of its tremendous preseason expectations.

"That's the negative way to look at it," manager Johnny Oates said. "The positive way to look at it is that they had a chance to bury us and they didn't."

Oates finally had his cover blown yesterday when someone asked him if he was disappointed that the club didn't take fuller advantage when the Tigers swept the Blue Jays. He correctly pointed out that the Blue Jays had not been swept. They won the first game of the four-game series.

"See, I was even watching the scoreboard on Thursday, and we didn't have a game," said Oates, who attended the charity auction held by the Orioles wives on Thursday at Camden Yards. The out-of-town scoreboard was in operation. The scoreboard watching has been a lot more pleasant the past three days.

The Toronto pitching staff, which gave up 11 runs in the one game the club won in Detroit, was hammered all weekend. The starting rotation has been shelled almost daily for the past eight days. In the past eight games, Blue Jays starters have worked 39 innings and given up 56 hits and 46 earned runs, which works out to a 10.62 ERA. The pitching staff as a whole has posted a 5.19 ERA since the All-Star break. Remember, this was the team that was supposed to have the deepest pitching staff in baseball.

The Blue Jays are getting by without injured Juan Guzman, who was the club's most consistent pitcher until he went on the disabled list recently with soreness behind his shoulder. Stottlemyre has struggled to remain healthy, and Dave Stieb's comeback from a shoulder problem apparently has been derailed. He has been replaced in the rotation for Thursday's game by rookie reliever Doug Linton.

The environment appears to be right for the Orioles to show they can play in Toronto the way they did when they took two of three games from the Blue Jays at Camden Yards in June, but no one is ready to assume the Jays pitching staff is as vulnerable as it appeared this weekend in Detroit.

"That kind of thing can turn around in a matter of days," center fielder Mike Devereaux said. "They could make a 180-degree turn, and the pitching could be awesome. It doesn't make any difference what any club did yesterday."

It does make a difference who will be available to play, however, and the Blue Jays probably will have to do without third baseman Kelly Gruber. He has been reduced to a spot player by neck and back spasms the past few weeks and told a Toronto reporter yesterday that it would take "a minor miracle" for him to be ready to play tonight.

The Orioles, meanwhile, are doing without front-line catcher Chris Hoiles, but they have first baseman Glenn Davis apparently at full strength for the first time since he was acquired by the club 1 1/2 years ago. In addition, shortstop Cal Ripken appears to be fighting his way out of a lengthy slump, which could make the top of the Orioles lineup very dangerous.

"They are a great ballclub with outstanding pitching," Blue Jays second baseman Roberto Alomar said, "but the thing we have to do is keep Anderson and Devereaux off base."

The Orioles, no doubt, would say the same about Devon White and Alomar -- the two batters at the top of the Toronto lineup -- but it is not as simple that. The team that pitches well probably will have the upper hand (what else is new?), but the Orioles have to hit better than they did against the Indians.

Much of the pressure is on the Blue Jays, who have been saddled with such great expectations the past few years that last season's mere division championship was viewed as a disappointment.

The front office paid major bucks to add proven winners Jack Morris and Dave Winfield to the equation. Gruber said in spring training that the club should win "by 15 games." Manager Cito Gaston has been given all the horses, and his team has not been able to run away from the Orioles. That's pressure.

The Orioles would appear to have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Second place would be considered a successful season after losing 95 games last year. The next four days are an opportunity to strut their stuff in front of the baseball world.

"It's too early in the season to be a 'must' series," Oates said. "If we don't play well, it's not the end of the world, but we'd like to go in there and play well.

"I think the series is going to be a confidence boost for one of the teams for the rest of the season," Milligan said. "If one of the two teams comes out with three or four or a sweep, I think you might see that team ride that wave the rest of the way.

"I wish I could see into the future and see what the series holds, so I'd know whether to show up or not."

AL East at a glance

/%.. .. .....W-L...... Pct. ...... GB

Toronto... 65-46.... .586 ...... -

Orioles... 63-48.... .568 ...... 2

Milwaukee. 60-50.... .545 ...... 4 1/2

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