Smith: Back-to-back fluke or '93 flashback?


The warning bell that went off last Sunday sounded like a siren after Tuesday night's All-Star Game, and it undoubtedly got the Orioles' attention.

Before getting caught up in speculation over where Lee Smith will pitch next year, they're more concerned about how he'll pitch the rest of whatever is left of this season.

After yielding a game-winning homer to Mark McGwire the last game before the break, Smith surrendered a game-tying shot to Fred McGriff that kept the American League from winning its seventh straight All-Star Game. The back-to-back blasts created flashback to 1993.

A year ago, Smith was a non-participating member of the National League All-Star team, but he finished the season as a mop-up man in the New York Yankees' bullpen. The 11 home runs allowed and the 4.50 ERA in his 55 games with the St. Louis Cardinals disfigured his major-league-leading 46 saves.

Last night, even though he got the save, Smith struggled. He walked Jim Edmonds on four pitches to lead off the ninth and allowed a run before preserving the 3-2 win.

Is this deja vu? Or merely a rough interlude?

This is a determination the Orioles have to make -- fast. With only a half-game separating them from the division-leading Yankees, the current 11-game road trip should provide some indications about the top two teams in the AL East.

Just as they did for the last 10 games before the midseason break, the Orioles and Yankees will be playing common opponents on the West Coast -- the California Angels, Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics. With both clubs playing at home against those teams, the Orioles gained four games by going 7-3 while the Yankees did a 3-7 stumble.

Now the leaders take their acts on the road, searching for some answers. The Yankees have an arm up in the starting rotation, with Jim Abbott and Melido Perez supporting Jimmy Key, while the Orioles are waiting for someone to step up behind Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald.

To this point, the Orioles' pitching advantage over the Yankees has been provided primarily by Smith, whose 30 saves lead the majors. If they are going to overtake the Yankees, they can't afford another second-half slide by the right-hander.

So the club waits to see whether Smith has merely hit a rut -- or if the American League will catch up to him the second time around. Until that has been determined, there's no sense speculating on where he will pitch next year. Smith said during the All-Star break that he will consider signing with the Houston Astros next season to be nearer to his ailing father.

As was the case last winter, when he was a soft entry in the free-agent market, where Mr. Smith goes next year will be determined by how he pitches the rest of this season -- which in large measure may decide where the Orioles finish.

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