Orioles' ticket to top is to take every series


Last Thursday, the Orioles were a run and two innings away from tying for the lead in the American League East. About 72 hours later, they were three games in arrears and slinking back into town under cover of darkness following a 15-2 pounding by the Royals.

That's surrendering a game a day, which, if continued for the time it takes to reach a seat in the last row of the upper deck at Camden Yards, could mean the pennant race would be over by Labor Day.

These are not words to panic by, but perhaps it's time to remind everyone about the way things usually go in a pennant race. And time for the Bird brain trust to at least consider the possibility of changing its standard operational procedures slightly as it heads into the last 30 percent of the season.

The Orioles, in effect, lost both series in their quickie run to Toronto and Kansas City. True, they split four games in Canada. But as the front-runners, that's all the Jays were striving for, to hold position.

Meanwhile, and after nipping at the tail of the Jays for what approaches an eternity, Baltimore manager Johnny Oates said an odd thing afterward: "Nothing has me convinced they have us beat." What a strange summation coming from such a normally optimistic guy.

As far as K.C. is concerned, it wasn't the pummeling yesterday but the game the O's handed to the AL West also-rans Saturday night. After winning following a mild scare Friday night, this was the game the team had to have to assure taking the series.

Winning series, that's what it's all about now as the season-long rivals head into their last 44 games. Forget who has the alleged advantage with regard to opponents, traveling schedule, healthy bodies, off days and the tea leaves in the bottom of a cup at Madame Zora's. The sole objective now is to win series.

It took Gregg Olson no more than a half-dozen serves to create conflagration from conquest two nights ago. It was by no means a rare occurrence, but more on the up-and-down ways of the once-trusty reliever in a minute.

Without regard to whether they are home or road series, because Big Jake's Place hasn't proven to be any kind of reliable advantage, the Orioles have 14 series remaining, beginning with Seattle coming in for three games tomorrow night.

Streaks, schmeaks, the Birds have to start taking two out of three from teams consistently, whether they be the Mariners, a club flirting with a 100-loss season, or Oakland, the team with the best mark in the Major Leagues right now.

It's basic, sure, but it has been proven over the decades that the easiest, most pressure-free way to get to the objective of a victory total in the mid-90s is to win a gang of rubber matches, not rely on a couple of hellacious winning streaks stuck in the midst of mediocre play.

It happens every ice age or so, but who wants to rely on a 28-6 finish to rescue the team from fourth place in the last month of the season as was the case with the 1974 Orioles?

With its 69-49 record, say Toronto continues at a .585 win percentage to the end of its schedule. That translates to 95-67. The O's would have to go 29-15 for a tie, a brutal assignment.

At this point, it sounds so much easier to just go out and win series and dare the Blue Jays to match.

While beating the Royals last Friday, the Orioles used four pitchers while KC's Kevin Appier was going the distance. It didn't chop up the Bird bullpen, but it appeared a terrible waste of manpower for the seemingly express purpose of gaining Olson yet another dubious save. With a two-run lead, he immediately surrendered a leadoff double to the first batter, the ninth hitter in the order.

Next night and with a one-run lead to protect, Olson gave a leadoff single, then threw four errant tosses as a batter attempted a sacrifice bunt. "He's teasing us again," said broadcaster Jon Miller through gritted teeth and the Birds ended up losing.

In order to short-circuit any finger-pointing, pitching coach Dick Bosman reminded how Olson "had done it for us so many times before and he'll do it for us again." But that doesn't get at the point. Hey, Mike Flanagan once won 23 games for the club, but folks have certainly noticed that the lefty gets lit up nearly every time out these days?

Even Brooks Robinson, who abhors managing and generally isn't very critical as an analyst in the TV booth, points out that "the club can't be set in its ways" to the point where Olson is relied upon to close out every game no matter what the situation of the pitcher he is called upon to relieve.

There's a rumor making the rounds that it's not absolutely essential that Olson get every Oriole save and there's even a hint that a couple of starting pitchers might not mind finishing up a game or two given the alternative.

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