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Red Sox can be caught, but chances are Orioles are too iffy to do it A QUESTION OF CONTENDING

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Moments after the Orioles completed a four-game sweep of the Chicago White Sox last weekend, manager Phil Regan leaned back in his chair, his cap tilted back slightly, and looked very, very relieved.

Regan said that his team had played its best baseball of the year and that, despite a disappointing 33-35 start, they were ready for the second half.

He may be right. But there are many questions about the enigmatic Orioles, and here are 11 as they head into the final months of the season:

1. Can the Boston Red Sox be caught?

Absolutely. Boston is an underwhelming team. Its starting pitching relies on a knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield, who was released in the past year, and Roger Clemens. Wakefield's command of the maddening pitch could escape him again, and Clemens breaks down on a fairly regular basis. Don't forget, either, about the impact temperamental manager Kevin Kennedy could have on this team, particularly the bullpen and new closer Rick Aguilera. And it always must be pointed out that these are the Red Sox, a team that refuses to win when it most matters. Their reputation as losers over the years is well-deserved.

Chances, on a scale of 1 to 10, that the Red Sox won't win the

division: 6.

2. Will Ben McDonald and Kevin Brown recover from their first-half injuries and be effective?

Brown's injury was more structural -- a dislocated top joint in his index finger -- and now that it has healed, he should be fine, whenever he gets back into the rotation. But McDonald's health may be another matter. His injury was diagnosed two weeks ago as tendinitis in the back of his right shoulder, and after

feeling as if he were improving, McDonald had a setback last week, feeling some soreness again. He's never had shoulder problems before, so there's really no telling if he can bounce back.

Chances that Brown and McDonald will pitch well again: 6.

3. Will Scott Erickson help the Orioles?

At the least, he figures to be an improvement over Arthur Rhodes, the pitcher he bumps from the rotation. Erickson consistently pitches seven or eight innings, and though his won-lost record is poor over the past few years, at the least he will keep the Orioles close. Folks around baseball -- scouts, executives, players -- seem to agree that this was a very good trade for the Orioles, because they really didn't give up that much for the talented right-hander.

Chances that Erickson will be a plus: 7.

4. Will Jeffrey Hammonds become an impact player in the second half?

The bottom line is that Hammonds is only nine months removed from one of the most traumatic operations in sports, reconstructive knee surgery. He looked bad at the start of the season, came back from a stint in the minors and played effectively for a few weeks and, in recent games, he has looked terrible, at the plate and in the field. It would be wise for the Orioles to proceed with their planning for this year assuming that Hammonds won't improve; his operation was too serious to do anything else. If Hammonds continues to struggle and the Orioles have a chance to pick up a right fielder who can help them, then they should do it. Hammonds will come back a better player next year, but this year, they should consider anything he does to be a bonus.

L Chances that Hammonds will be an impact player this year: 2.

5. Will the bullpen continue its recent success?

There's no reason to think it can't. Ever since Terry Clark and Mark Lee were promoted to the majors June 8, this really has been the best and most consistent part of the team: a good left-right balance in the eighth and ninth innings with Jesse Orosco and Doug Jones and in the middle innings with Lee and Clark. Mike Oquist has had problems in tight ballgames, but he's done a creditable job as a long reliever. Something to think about, though: The Orioles need to be able to rely on Armando Benitez. They need a reliever who can get a strikeout with runners on base in the late innings. Suppose the Orioles have a one-run lead and the other team puts a runner at third with nobody out in the eighth. They need Benitez for his power, and if they send him back to the minors, they won't get that.

Chances that the bullpen will hold up: 8.

6. Is Chris Hoiles' recent streak for real?

For the Orioles' sake, it better be. He'd been a major disappointment until last week, and when he started hitting, he showed how much impact he can have on the attack. For the first two months of the season, Hoiles often would pop up or strike out because he had a loop in his swing. The loop was gone last weekend, flattened out, and he was mashing line drives. His history suggests that although he's never going to hit .300, he'll eventually grind his way to .250. The big thing with Hoiles is that he cannot fall behind in the count as much as he did in the first half of the season.

Chances that Hoiles will regroup: 6.

7. Are Jeff Manto and Jamie Moyer for real?

Manto played the entire 1994 season in the minors, and Moyer began this season as a middle reliever in the bullpen. Yet, the Orioles have come to need and expect production from both. Manto has been a key hitter, because, with Leo Gomez in a season-long funk, Manto gives them some power and RBIs. Moyer has been the Orioles' best pitcher over the past few weeks, stifling the Toronto Blue Jays, Milwaukee Brewers and White Sox. Their respective histories suggest they may have difficulty sustaining their remarkable seasons, but as Regan said about Manto, he's not going to think about whether Manto may or may not stop hitting; he's just going to enjoy the production while he gets it.

Chances that Manto and Moyer will continue to produce: 5.

8. Can Curtis Goodwin and Manny Alexander keep it up?

If Goodwin continues to hit over .350, he will 1) be AL Rookie of the Year and 2) Make everyone forget Rickey Henderson for a while. At some point, he'll have problems -- everybody does -- and that may start to occur now that advance scouts have had a good look at Goodwin and his tendency to swing at pitches out of the strike zone. But Goodwin has a luxury: He can hit the ball poorly and get on anyway because of his speed. Alexander's production has been a recent addition to the offense. However, it stands to reason that opposing pitchers will take him a little more seriously the second time around. Look for them to slow down -- a little bit, anyway. Maybe Goodwin will bat .300 for the last 2 1/2 months, rather than .350.

Chances that Goodwin and Alexander will continue at their current paces: 4.

9. Can the inconsistent offense improve in the second half?

It could, but it probably won't. Sure, Hoiles didn't drive in runs in the first half, but Manto has been a major surprise. Yeah, maybe the Orioles haven't gotten much from Hammonds, but Goodwin is surpassing everyone's expectations, including his own. This is not a great offensive team, and unless a deal is made and some big bopper is added, that won't change.

Chances that the offense will get better with the current cast: 2.

10. Will the Orioles' bench become a factor?

It will become a liability, unless changes are made. Regan has had to manage with 13 position players because of injuries in the starting rotation. As soon as Brown and McDonald go back into the rotation, however, this is an area of the club that must be addressed. Kevin Bass has been great, and Greg Zaun is a solid No. 2 catcher. But though Bret Barberie is hitting better, he can play only one position. Gomez has gotten two shots at third this year, been awful at the plate and, like Barberie, doesn't have a lot of versatility. The Orioles bought out Sid Fernandez, and, at some point, they're going to have to do the same with Gomez. Why not now, and add a good right-handed hitter -- preferably, an outfielder -- via trade? They should keep Jeff Huson; he's a good complement to Manto, because he's a left-handed hitter with speed who can pinch-run for Manto in late innings.

Chances that the bench will be a plus with the current group: 5.

11. Will the Orioles trade for another player if there is need?

Of course. If owner Peter Angelos has seen a need, he's moved quickly to plug the hole; he's all about action. Trading for Erickson is action, signing (and releasing) Fernandez is action, signing Rafael Palmeiro is action. A better question might be whether they can get the players they want -- say, for instance, if they jumped into the Roberto Alomar sweepstakes that could begin in the next two weeks.

Chances that the Orioles will make more moves: 9.

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