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At crunch time, Sutcliffe takes charge Veteran is rock of a shaky staff


SEATTLE -- When right-hander Rick Sutcliffe takes the mound in today's series finale at the Kingdome, he isn't going to need any help getting motivated.

It doesn't matter if the Toronto Blue Jays keep losing. It doesn't matter what the other teams do. To Sutcliffe, every game is a must-win situation.

"It was nice to win two of three against California last week," he said before last night's game, "but that was the first time in awhile that we won a series. We've got to start winning. It doesn't matter what other teams do. You have to win."

That has not been a problem for Sutcliffe lately. The Orioles have won the past five games he has started. He has been the stabilizer in a starting rotation that has yet to rise to the pressure of the pennant race. The club acquired him to be a steadying influence on the young staff. He has been that and more.

When the team needed a pep talk in the late innings of a game a week ago, Sutcliffe turned out a tongue-lashing he felt certain would alienate everyone. When he has had to lead by example, he has done that, too -- flying back from a family emergency last week to pitch the club to an important victory over the California Angels.

When the club needed defending, he also was equal to that task yesterday, explaining away the team's lackluster performance in the series opener.

"That is a pretty good team over there," he said. "That team has averaged six runs a game and double figures in hits for the past two weeks. It wasn't just us."

The pennant race is a different story. Sutcliffe says that the Orioles have to take matters into their own hands before somebody else does. No one expects the Blue Jays to keep losing forever, and the Milwaukee Brewers are no longer a distant concern.

"Oakland is the only team in the league that has turned it up a notch," Sutcliffe said. "That's what we need. We need to start playing better. We've got to get better. In my mind, the best thing about this is that I know that we have the ability to do that."

Sutcliffe says he is not concerned that the club may be looking at success in relative terms. It might be easy to look at the 1992 season as a success already, since expectations were not high at the outset, but he claims that the focus has never been lower than first place.

"Our goal has always been to win," he said. "We weren't the ones who said that we weren't going to be in it. You've never heard anyone here say that if we finish second, we'll be happy."

He is one pitcher who has never had trouble getting fired up for a game, but the prospect of the pennant stretch appears to have had a positive effect on his performance. He has bounced back from a winless July to re-assert himself as a front-line starting pitcher.

"I think it's easier to get focused at this point in the season," he said. "I think it's a lot more fun when the games are important. It's fun when there are a lot of people watching.

And you're getting a chance to accomplish the things you set out to do in February."

No suspicion

The Orioles were on the lookout for any suspicious behavior by Seattle Mariners starter Tim Leary Friday night, but he survived their scrutiny and scored his first victory since he defeated them in the infamous "scuffball" game on June 21.

"Nobody said anything," manager Johnny Oates said.

Sutcliffe, who was watching from the dugout, also said that he did not hear anyone say that Leary was on anything but his best behavior.

Starter trouble

The Orioles may be 5-0 in Sutcliffe's past five starts, but the other starters have combined to run up a 6.04 ERA (60 earned runs in 89 innings) since Aug. 5.

Trade deadline

The Orioles have until midnight tomorrow to try and pull off a deal in time for a new addition to be eligible for postseason play, but there has been no sign of activity.

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