TORONTO -- Inquiring minds want to know. Whatever happened to the two division favorites in the American League East?
The Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays were supposed to be the class of the division, but from the looks of the Orioles' 6-3 victory yesterday at SkyDome, both teams could be in for a long season.
It may be only May, but this four-game series figured to be an early test of strength for both clubs -- if not a showdown -- and a chance to establish credibility for the long run.
Instead, the first three games of the series have exposed both teams for what they are, mere shells of the teams that ran neck-and-neck for most of the 1992 season.
The Orioles needed a victory yesterday and they got one, but the manner in which they won only underscored the problems they are going to face trying to compete with a ravaged offensive lineup and a struggling starting rotation.
Utility player Mark McLemore and Triple-A call-up Damon Buford combined to drive in five runs to carry right-hander Rick Sutcliffe to his third victory and once again bail out the struggling veterans at the heart of the Orioles' lineup.
The Blue Jays aren't having any trouble scoring runs, but they've been forced to scramble to piece together a starting rotation. They were so desperate that they recalled Triple-A pitcher Doug Linton to start yesterday, overlooking his 1-3 record at Syracuse in favor of a strong performance against the Orioles last August.
It almost worked. Linton looked strong for four innings, until the Orioles batted around in the fifth to score five times and run him out of the game. Buford's two-run double brought the club from behind, and McLemore's two-run triple gave Sutcliffe enough breathing room to struggle through six innings.
Reliever Todd Frohwirth, who gave up the sudden-death single that sank the club the night before, took over in the seventh and pitched three hitless innings to earn his second save.
Oh, happy day. The Orioles improved to 11-17 and don't have to worry about a sweep when left-hander Arthur Rhodes takes the mound today against Blue Jays ace Juan Guzman in the series finale. But they do have to worry about what happens when reality sets in on some of the guys who have been trying to carry the club.
McLemore continues to be the driving force in the Orioles offense. His three RBI vaulted him into the club RBI lead and further solidified his place in the starting lineup.
"You keep putting him out there and he keeps getting the big hits," manager Johnny Oates said. "He had two big ones today. He's doing OK in the outfield, and he brings a great attitude to the ballpark."
It is certainly a tribute to McLemore that he has been able to rise to the occasion, as it has to Buford during the past few games, but the magnification of their success is something of two-edged sword. They have stood out because Brady Anderson is in a 1-for-23 slump and Cal Ripken needed a two-hit performance just to raise his average to .231 and because first baseman Glenn Davis no longer is hitting his weight (.187).
The Blue Jays can see some of the same things happening. Right-hander Pat Hentgen (4-1) has been their best pitcher this season. He deserves credit for pitching well when the team needed him the most, but the team is not going to be there at the end if he turns out to be the No. 1 or No. 2 starter.
The Orioles had to beat Linton. It was a matter of honor. He kept them out of first place last year with an outstanding eight-inning performance that still accounts for his only major-league victory. He was called up Friday from Triple-A Syracuse, where he was winless in two starts against the Orioles' Triple-A Rochester Red Wings.
Linton might be savoring his second major-league victory if Sutcliffe had not slipped the noose after walking three in the third inning. The Orioles starter had given up a leadoff home run to Devon White in the first and gotten away with a leadoff double by John Olerud in the second. But it looked like he was not going to be so fortunate after he walked Paul Molitor to load the bases for Joe Carter in the third.
One big swing and the game would have been different. One big swing and maybe the Orioles would have slipped into their shell and waited for another day to try and get back on the right track. Even a sacrifice fly would have made life more difficult for the Orioles, but Sutcliffe ad-libbed a sidearm fastball that Carter pulled to shortstop for a routine double play.
"I knew that Frohwirth has had success down and in on him," Sutcliffe said, "so I tried to do the same thing. The first time up, I kind of played around with it a little bit. The second time, I threw him a sidearm fastball."
Carter, who homered in each of the first two games of the series, said he had been caught off-guard, even claiming that that Sutcliffe was "inventing" pitches as he went along. Whatever Sutcliffe was doing, he probably will want to keep doing it, because he got Carter to make a weak out three straight times.
Sutcliffe did not have that kind of success against White, who homered, walked and singled in three trips. He also gave up a two-run home run to catcher Randy Knorr, which persuaded Oates to go to the bullpen in the seventh inning.
"Mechanically, I'm still struggling a little bit with my location," said Sutcliffe, who also has been battling the flu. "It's not that I'm getting beat on, I'm just getting behind like I did with Knorr."
Oates brought on Frohwirth at that point, both because Sutcliffe seemed vulnerable and because he wanted to get Frohwirth back to the mound as soon as possible after the unpleasant finish the night before. But Frohwirth said that his psyche was not injured by the bloop single that beat him on Friday.
"I don't know if I'm different than anybody else," he said, "but I grade myself by how I throw the ball. I don't grade myself on losses and bloop hits. If I throw the ball well, I feel all right, and I thought I threw the ball well yesterday."