O's proving they belong in baseball's hit parade


CLEVELAND -- No sense fretting about the Orioles' pitching. These are the rock-'em, sock'-em '90s. You don't outpitch your opponents, you outscore them.

The Cleveland Indians got the final say last night, because right now Albert Belle is the ultimate rock-'em, sock-'em robot, possessing a devastating knockout punch.

Still, the Orioles have every right to be encouraged as they open a 10-game homestand tonight against California. They're finally hitting the way everyone anticipated in the spring.

Pitching wasn't the reason they went 5-2 on this road trip -- they got three straight quality starts in Toronto, but allowed 25 runs in four games in Cleveland.

No, the biggest factor was their suddenly resurgent offense. Even in last night's 4-2 defeat, they managed 10 hits off All-Star candidate Mark Clark.

The trip wasn't a total success -- the Orioles lost a half-game in the standings to the Yankees, winners of eight of nine. But, for the first time all season, manager Johnny Oates seems satisfied.

"I'm happy with the way this team is playing right now," Oates said after last night's game. "We've been waiting a long time to start hitting the way we're hitting now.

"If we start getting a few more clutch hits, we'll start putting big numbers up. We're getting a lot of base runners out there. It's not just one guy, it's everyone down the line."

And it's not a one-week trend, either.

On June 4, the Orioles had a .261 team batting average, and ranked next-to-last in the American League in runs. Since then, they've been a different team, as their 15-9 record suggests.

They're averaging 5.6 runs per game in this stretch, compared with 4.9 earlier. They've raised their team batting average to .272. And they've hit a major-league high 36 home runs.

Chris Hoiles has hit five of those homers in his last 13 games. Brady Anderson was on base nine times in the Cleveland series. And Mike Devereaux is expected to return shortly.

Thus, Oates reasons, "we could get even better" -- even if Devereaux is hitting only .220. Chris Sabo and Jeffrey Hammonds are back. Cal Ripken is on a 21-homer, 115-RBI pace.

"It's good we're hitting the ball and scoring some runs," said Ripken, who went 10-for-19 against the Indians to raise his average to .307.

"We're starting to get our everyday lineup back. Having Jeffrey Hammonds in the lineup makes a difference. It's good to have him back, and everyone else seems to be coming around."

Oates has used his Opening Day lineup only 12 times in the first 76 games. The benching of Sabo in favor of Leo Gomez was one reason, but injuries played a major part.

Now the Orioles play 21 straight games against the three West Coast teams. The Yankees face the same schedule, but they've already gone through two hot streaks.

Isn't it time the Orioles had one?

"We're hitting like we felt we always could," general manager Roland Hemond said. "We knew it was just a matter of time.

"That's why we're in every ballgame now. Even when you fall behind, you still feel confident you can put something together. We're getting good cuts."

So, no sense fretting about the wobbly starting rotation, the injured Sid Fernandez, the struggling Ben McDonald, the inconsistent Jamie Moyer and Mike Oquist.

Practically every team is in the same position. At least the Orioles boast a dominant ace (Mike Mussina), a top setup man (Mark Eichhorn) and a reliable closer (Lee Smith).

Take away those three, and the team ERA is a whopping 5.45. Sure, the Orioles would prefer better, but how can they complain? Their overall 4.52 ERA ranks fifth in the league.

With the season nearly half-over, every AL team is above 4.00, and six are above 5.00. The league average entering last night's games was a whopping 4.89. Last season, it was 4.32.

The Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series last year with mediocre pitching. Indeed, their 15-14 triumph over Philadelphia in Game 5 stands as a defining moment of this pitching-poor age.

It's no coincidence that the top five teams in the AL this season are the top five in pitching. But look at the Twins. They entered last night with a 5.73 ERA. Yet, they are four games over .500, thanks to their pinball-style offense.

The Orioles can't win unless McDonald rights himself. They can't win unless their relief pitching remains stable. And they can't win without a second-half surprise -- maybe Arthur Rhodes.

Mostly, they can't win if they don't hit.

It's the rock-'em, sock-'em '90s.

High score wins.

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