Suddenly, O's have look of winner

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The landscape of the American League East changed dramatically Friday, like the San Andreas Fault shifting the division's relative powers. Weaknesses became strengths, the first-place team suddenly looks like a loser, and the Orioles have emerged as the front-runner.

The revised predictions:

1. Orioles. Best defensive team, best pitching among AL East contenders, serviceable offense.

2. Yankees. Best hitting among AL East contenders, average defense, very good pitching.

3. Boston Red Sox. Worst defense in AL, a pitching staff in tatters, and the inherent knowledge that somehow, they are always supposed to fail (and don't underestimate the importance of that last part).

The Yankees traded for pitcher David Cone, improving what has become a solid rotation, and in picking up Ruben Sierra they swapped a player who definitely was not going to help them (Danny Tartabull) for a former All-Star who could be a big plus if he's inspired by being part of a pennant race.

But the Yankees have two huge X-factors. First, Darryl Strawberry. If he hits with the same kind of power he's shown at Triple-A Columbus, he could add to what is already a good offense. If he doesn't hit, though, his presence will be a major distraction, for the other players, for manager Buck Showalter, everybody. His addition is an all-or-nothing move.

Their X-factor No. 2 is owner George Steinbrenner, always good for a few complications, even when the team is playing well. This week he criticized general manager Gene Michael and Showalter for not criticizing Tartabull. Steinbrenner said he is "a little fed up with the whole situation of Stick [Michael] and Buck saying things in meetings and then being Mr. Nice Guys to the press about him. They should stand up and say what they said at the meetings or there are going to be serious consequences."

Wow, that's a twist; it's mandatory to speak one's mind. Wonder what Michael and Showalter would have to say if they offered their heartfelt feelings about The Boss.

The Orioles, on the other hand, addressed a specific need in acquiring Bobby Bonilla. They wanted a right-handed or switch-hitting right fielder to hit in the middle of the order.

Their offense had become predictable: Against subpar pitchers or average pitchers, the Orioles might squeak out four or five runs and win on the strength of pitching and defense. When they ran into good or even slightly above-average pitching, they were shut down. Catcher Greg Zaun and second baseman Bret Barberie and even outfielder Mark Smith gave the Orioles a much-needed boost in the last week, but none of the decision-makers was lulled into a false sense of security.

No one really believed that the Orioles could seriously compete without another hitter, and that's why manager Phil Regan made a public plea for another slugger last week. He knew what he had, and what he didn't have.

What Regan has is a contender.

As all these deals were being consummated, the Red Sox were reeling. Roger Clemens was scratched from his start Friday night because of elbow trouble, and there is real fear in Boston that his season may be over. Their rotation is woefully thin, and the Red Sox brass -- which is in the process of building a home-grown juggernaut that probably won't surface for a couple more years -- don't seem willing to dive into this battle of bucks and minor-league prospects waged by the Orioles and Yankees.

Funny. The race is on, and the first-place team is the only club that doesn't seem to be a part of it.

Oh, yeah, forgot.

4. Detroit.

5. Toronto.

Just win, baby

Regan said he couldn't win the division without another hitter, and now he has that hitter. So it figures that if the Orioles and Regan don't win with Bonilla (barring injuries), the manager could begin next year on the hot seat.

A nasty place to be, considering that the Orioles have mortgaged some of their future -- '96 and beyond -- to take a chance on Bonilla. They'll go into next year with $26.55 million already committed to five position players, and one pitcher.

* Clemens complained recently that the umpires have squeezed the strike zone on him. Let's just assume, for argument's sake, that this is true, and try and identify the cause-and-effect.

Could it be that the Rocket is rather surly with the umps? Before his last start, he exchanged harsh words with Don Denkinger, telling the veteran ump that the balls weren't rubbed properly (the umpires are supposed to rub up the game balls with a special mud). Clemens discovered that the umpires had allowed clubhouse attendants to rub up the balls.

"If they're going to rub them up, you've got to teach them how!" Clemens told Denkinger. This was punctuated, reportedly, by Clemens yelling at Denkinger, "Don't rub them up, that'll give you an extra half-hour to eat six hot dogs before the game."

0$ That'll shrink your strike zone.

5/8 The St. Louis Cardinals are finding out, as the Orioles did last year, that Chris Sabo's career is just about over. Spuds II has been bothered by back trouble this year.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals are making little secret of the fact they want to sign Braves first baseman Fred McGriff in the off-season. What they would discover is that McGriff needs complementary players around him to succeed, and that's something the Cardinals just don't have.

* Cleveland eked out a series against Oakland last weekend, but word is the Athletics felt good about how they pitched the Cleveland Indians: Hard stuff inside, which is how the Dodgers beat the Monster Bashing Athletics in 1988.

* Colorado rookie pitcher Bryan Rekar throws inside, as Philadelphia Phillies center fielder Lenny Dykstra found out. The two exchanged nasty words. Rockies manager Don Baylor said: "I told Rekar that's he going to run into another guy, Barry Bonds, who is going to stand out there and stare at you and try to intimidate you. He's going to bust Bonds inside and [Bonds] is not going to like it. He can use that to his advantage. The hitters don't know him. Let them wonder [about his control]." Rekar is one of six Rockies prospects considered untouchable by the organization.

* Braves manager Bobby Cox got a two-year contract extension, despite his spousal abuse case earlier this year. "We recognize that we have to deal with human issues," said Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz. "I think he has dealt with them very well, in a positive and forthright manner."

* No end in sight to the injury problems of Toronto reliever Duane Ward. He popped the knuckle of his right (pitching) index finger, and the Blue Jays aren't sure when he'll be back. Ward has spent most of the past two years rebounding from shoulder trouble. "The next person I'll be calling," Ward said dryly, "is Dr. Kevorkian."

No relief

The other night, Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda allowed starter Ramon Martinez to throw 137 pitches in a complete game against Florida, a subtle indictment of Lasorda's bullpen. "It's a pretty good indicator, I'd say," said Lasorda, who determined that he wouldn't use tired closer Todd Worrell that night and exhibited little faith in anyone else.

* Hideo Nomo was forced out of his last start by a cracked nail. The treatment on his ailment: nail polish.

* When Detroit signed Mike Moore in 1993, Sparky Anderson thought he would be the club's best ace since Jack Morris. Ol' Sparky was wrong. Moore is 29-29 with the Tigers, his ERA well over five runs.

* Atlanta closer Mark Wohlers has turned his career around this summer. "I have never seen anyone throw the ball that hard," San Diego's Eddie Williams said after striking out against Wohlers.

* In his first game for the Giants, Deion Sanders misplayed a couple of fly balls. The headline in the San Francisco Examiner the next day: "Deion plays field like it's secondary."

Giant contracts

Mark Portugal, traded to the Cincinnati Reds in the Sanders deal, was furious. He issued a terse statement that read, "I'm extremely disappointed. I was misled to believe this organization had a commitment to winning. That's a blatant lie."

The Giants are having to make do because they are saddled with the astronomical contracts of Bonds and Matt Williams, and their attendance is off by 40 percent, the biggest decline in the game.

* Former Nasty Boy Rob Dibble has landed with the Milwaukee Brewers, and his locker is next to that of Pat Listach, whom Dibble tried to bean in June. They talked about the incident and called a truce. The Brewers believe they can correct a flaw in the delivery of Dibble, who can throw 95 mph.

* Sid Fernandez gave up four hits in 13 innings in his second and third starts for the Phillies, although one observer said that he surrendered five fly balls that would have been homers in his last start for Philadelphia. Ah, the National League.

* The Reds had to have Portugal (and even tried to get Cone) after the injury to Jose Rijo, who may require reconstructive elbow surgery. "I feel like a blind man trying to cross Broadway," said a confused Rijo, after consulting with his doctors. "There is a tear in the ligament and it needs surgery. We've waited so long now and nothing is happening. It isn't getting better, it's getting worse and worse."

* The Reds also have added Frank Viola, who looked sharp in his first minor-league appearance for Triple-A Indianapolis. Viola wins with a changeup, and he needs just enough velocity to offset his off-speed pitches. Pitching for Indianapolis, his fastball topped out at 85 mph, plenty of velocity to make him effective.

* The Angels' acquisition of Jim Abbott is specific preparation for the playoffs. They probably would win the AL West without Abbott, but the Indians have trouble with lefties, and the Angels are loaded with lefties now, with Abbott, Chuck Finley and Mark Langston. The White Sox were talking wild card early last week.

"I'm starting to believe it can happen," said manager Terry

Bevington. "There are seven or eight teams ahead of us, I realize that. But if we play the way we thought we would play coming out of spring training, and we pitch the way we thought we would coming out of spring training, our chances are good."

Chicago's front office apparently disagreed, ripping the heart out of the club by dealing Abbott.

* Former Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame today, acknowledged his awful public relations.

"I'd be in the clubhouse, with chewing tobacco in my mouth, spitting in a cup, chomping at the bit, thinking, 'Two more hours, I'll be facing a 95-mph fastball,' " he said. "I don't have time to worry about my personality, whether the fans like me or not. They'll like me at the end of the year, when I've got 35 homers and 120 RBIs. If they don't, then the hell with them."

THE NUMBERS GAME

nTC

*Cleveland designated hitter Dave Winfield had 10 hits in 63 at-bats going into Monday's game, and in the 53 at-bats in which he did not get a hit, Winfield failed to get the ball out of the infield 42 times.

* Colorado's Dante Bichette is among the NL leaders in homers, but it wasn't until Tuesday that he hit his first homer away from Denver's Coors Field.

* Going into Thursday's doubleheader with Florida, San Diego center fielder Steve Finley was hitting .372 (48-for-129) with 31 runs scored and 16 stolen bases batting in the leadoff spot.

* The Twins, sporting the worst record in the AL, are 15-18 against the AL East (going into Thursday's play), 14-35 against the Central and West.

*Before his saves on Tuesday and Wednesday, California closer Lee Smith was 0-4 with three blown saves and an 18.78 ERA in his last nine appearances.

*Through Wednesday's game, Braves' starting pitchers had allowed 24 runs in their last 16 starts.

*Al Martin became the first NL player to get three hits in one game against Atlanta's Greg Maddux on Monday.

*The last time Detroit left-hander David Wells lost was back in May to the Orioles. You may recall that in that game, the winning run scored on a balk.

*The Padres' Andy Benes has held a lead through five innings 12 times this year, and given up the lead six times.

*Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly went 192 at-bats between his first and second homers, then hit three homers in a five-game stretch.

NEVER A HAPPY ENDING

Some residents of central Massachusetts are making a movie called The Curse of The Bambino, about a young boy whose father is a diehard Red Sox fan and is dying of cancer. The youngster wants to grant his father's last wish: To see the Red Sox win the World Series for the first time since they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. It's a comedy, of course. Fiction, of course, because the Red Sox always lose:

1949: Yankees come back and win the pennant on the last day of the season, when Yankees second baseman Jerry Coleman hits a bases-clearing blooper.

1967: The Impossible Dream _ the Red Sox, who finished ninth in '66, win the AL pennant. The Word Series? Well, that's why the called it the Impossible Dream.

1972 and 1974: Died in the last weeks.

1975: Play a great World Series against Cincinnati and lose when Jim Burton allows the winning run in the last inning of the last game (leaving Red Sox fans to wonder, forever, why Jim Burton?)

1978: Bucky Dent. His name lives in infamy, after he beats Boston with three-run homer in one-game playoff that ended wild regular season.

1986: They are one strike away from winning World Series, with nobody on base and a two-run lead. And they lose (Bill Buckner will always live in infamy for this one).

1995: Lead division for most of regular season and then (FILL IN BLANK).

Ken Griffey, Jr. broke his wrist making a running catch against the Orioles on May 26, and the injury appeared to be so severe - the bones shattering in four places that the Mariners feared Griffey's career might be in jeopardy. He eased those worries this week, taking his first swings on Tuesday. Five cuts: Four line drives to the wall in right, and one deep drive into the right field seats. Mariners No. 1 pick Jose Cruz, Jr. took batting practice with Griffey and watched in awe. "That's just not right. He's supposed to be hurt and he comes out and does that."

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