O's need a late lead before they need Smith

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His numbers are impressive, just as they were at this time last year. But those who keep trying to equate the loss of Lee Smith to the Orioles' horrible start are fishing in an empty stream.

Even though Smith picked up his AL-leading 12th save against his most recent former team last night, the big right-hander isn't even the ex-player the Orioles miss the most.

That distinction, easily, belongs to Mark McLemore, who is among the American League batting and stolen-base leaders while performing for former Orioles manager Johnny Oates and the Texas Rangers.

As for Smith, he has more than twice as many saves (12) as the Orioles (five). Likewise, the Angels have nearly twice as many wins (20) as the Orioles (11).

Though the Orioles' relievers have hardly distinguished themselves, it doesn't take a mathematical genius to determine that Smith would not have 12 saves if he were still wearing an Orioles uniform. The reason is simple -- he wouldn't have had nearly that many opportunities.

Right now the Angels appear to have made a wise decision to give Smith the two-year contract (for $4 million) that the Orioles refused to offer. But the jury will remain out until September.

His track record in the past two years indicates that Smith does not close the season as easily as he closes games in the early months. And, as it has often been pointed out in this space, the save can be a very deceiving statistic.

For instance, in the seven American League games played Sunday, six saves were recorded. Cleveland's 5-4 win over Toronto was the only one-run game, however.

It's not like Smith has dwarfed his competition. It should be noted that another ex-Oriole, Jose Mesa, has nine saves for the Indians, who not coincidentally have 19 wins and the best winning percentage in the AL. And would you believe that Bruce Ruffin, a left-hander who has been shopped all over baseball for the past five years, has seven saves for the Colorado Rockies?

The Orioles haven't even reached the point where they can be overly concerned about Doug Jones having two blown saves. The club simply hasn't put itself into position to register many saves.

Perhaps down the road the Orioles will regret not giving Smith a two-year contract.

But right now that's the least of their concerns.

First things first. For the Orioles, that means finding a way to take a lead into the ninth inning. Then, and only then, will the Smith debate warrant any discussion.

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