Yanks champing at comeback bit


These are not the New York Yankees of showmen Reggie Jackson and Goose Gossage. These are the Yankees of Don Mattingly and Jimmy "Low" Key. Billy Martin picked fights. Buck Showalter picks lineups and pitching matchups carefully and quietly.

The 1994 Yankees keep their emotions to themselves.

At least they did until late Sunday afternoon when they crowded around the television in the visiting clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium and watched the final moments of the Orioles' 7-6 loss to the Oakland Athletics.

Geronimo "The Chief" Berroa came to the plate for Oakland and several players began doing the tomahawk chop.

When Rickey Henderson slid safely home on Mark Eichhorn's wild pitch, several players hollered and raised their drinks in triumph.

The foundation for this celebration came an hour or so earlier. Summing up each team's West Coast road trip, the Yankees came from behind on Mattingly's three-run home run almost exactly when the Orioles lost their lead on Scott Hemond's three-run home run.

"No relation," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond was quick to point out. "I'm certainly not going to claim him now."

The Yankees, ahead of the second-place Orioles by 5 1/2 games, have not had a lead this big since 1980. They are winning games the way championship teams win them, by coming from behind.

The Yankees went 10-1 on their final West Coast swing and came from behind in five of the victories.

The Orioles, roofed out of two games in Seattle, went 4-5, had a lead in each game, and blew leads in the sixth inning or later in four of the five losses.

On the first day of the trip, the Yankees scored seven runs in the ninth inning to defeat the Seattle Mariners and keep the Orioles from moving into first place. A comeback win the next night again kept the Orioles from moving into first. On the last day of the trip, the Orioles squandered a 6-0 lead.

The Yankees won games the way the Orioles lost them.

The supposed point of vulnerability for the Yankees, their bullpen, gets stronger all the time. The Yankees are 52-3 when leading after seven; 53-1 when leading after eight.

Left-hander Steve Howe, one of the best stories in baseball if only he had any interest in telling it, has emerged as the Yankees' closer.

Howe has earned seven of the Yankees' past eight saves and has not allowed a run in his past 12 appearances.

The Yankees have no apparent weaknesses and have a 5 1/2 -game lead with the strike less than a month away -- Aug. 20 is as good a guess as any on the strike date the players will set this Thursday.

Any Orioles fan who was opposed to realignment and expanded playoffs has reason to reconsider that position now.

Three teams outside the weak American League West will qualify for the playoffs. As of now, the Orioles are running fourth in that race, behind the Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.

Reading traditional standings does not offer the truest way to track the Orioles' playoff possibilities. A standing listing the Yankees, White Sox, Indians and Orioles would offer a better indicator.

In a way, the Orioles consider themselves in that four-team division.

"As of right now we do," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "You know me, I don't ever count anybody out. But as of right now, there are four teams fighting for three spots."

And the Orioles are running fourth, two games behind Cleveland. Not only that, the Orioles have more holes than either the Yankees or White Sox.

Even though catcher Ron Karkovice is out for more than a month with a knee injury, the White Sox have established themselves as the favorites to win the Central Division.

Starter Jack McDowell and closer Roberto Hernandez have rebounded from first-half slumps. Alex Fernandez, undefeated in his past eight starts, joins Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere behind McDowell in giving the White Sox the strongest rotation in the American League.

Several factors make the Indians more vulnerable than either division leader, which in turn makes the four-game series at Camden Yards that begins with today's day-night doubleheader as big as any series the Orioles will play this year.

First, right-hander Mark Clark (11-3) suffered a broken wrist last week on a come-backer, leaving the Indians' rotation thin, so thin they brought up today's starter (Albie Lopez) from Triple-A and are considering starting Derek Lilliquist for Saturday's game in New York. Lilliquist has been active all season and has pitched just 21 2/3 innings.

Second, unless his corked bat suspension is lessened in an appeal with the American League office, the Indians will be without Albert Belle for 10 games.

Third, the Indians bullpen has been shaky all season, although the acquisition of Jeff Russell has strengthened it.

Fourth, the schedule. Today is the first of five remaining doubleheaders for the Indians.

Still, the Indians have the bats to outscore the opposition, no matter how worn down their pitching staff might get.

They hit 18 home runs in a recent five-game stretch.

On paper, the pitching matchups for the series favor the Orioles twice (Ben McDonald in Game 1, Mike Mussina in Game 3), the Indians once (Dennis Martinez in Game 2), with one draw (Jason Grimsley vs. Sid Fernandez in Game 4).

Power-hitting Indians second baseman Carlos Baerga, out with a sprained right ankle, did not leave with the team for Baltimore last night and could miss the entire series.

The Indians find themselves in unfamiliar territory, playing in pressure-packed games, which is fine with them.

"I'd rather play big games than little games," Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. "We played enough little ones to last us all a lifetime."

Those cagey schedule makers must have had a crystal ball at computer's side when making out the 1994 schedule. The Orioles play the final three games of their season at Cleveland's Jacobs Field.

NOTES: Orioles scout Fred Uhlman Sr. watched Philadelphia left-hander Danny Jackson pitch seven strong innings Sunday. Meanwhile the Cincinnati Reds continued discussions with the Phillies regarding Jackson and talked about sending a package of minor-league prospects to the Phillies, who plan to attempt to reacquire Jackson in the free-agent market. . . Jeff Tackett's wife Wendy gave birth to son Mack, the couple's third child, yesterday.

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