Inconsistency only sure thing for O's

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just two weeks ago, after the Bobby Bonilla trade, the prediction made here was that the Orioles would win the division, the Red Sox would fold up and crumble. Wrong on both counts, quite obviously.

The Orioles would require a comeback of legendary proportions to win the AL East now, and given the team's trademark inconsistency, it's hard to imagine the O's stringing together a few good innings, let alone a few wins.

If the Red Sox are having the most mystical season of 1995, the Orioles are having the most mysterious. Manager Phil Regan was trying to explain the club's awesome hitting slump last week and he read off the middle of his lineup. Rafael Palmeiro. Bonilla. Cal Ripken. Harold Baines. Chris Hoiles.

He asked rhetorically, wouldn't every manager want this lineup? With the exception of Cleveland's Mike Hargrove and California's Marcel Lachemann, he'd probably have a whole lot of takers.

Look at the rotation. Mike Mussina, competing for the AL Cy Young Award. Jamie Moyer, having a surprising season. Scott Erickson and Kevin Brown, who have such great stuff. A capable closer in Doug Jones, who, despite his trouble in Camden Yards, has had a decent season. Two setup men, Jesse Orosco and Terry Clark, who are having great seasons.

So what is wrong?

The pieces and parts look wonderful on paper, and sometimes even in person. But there are only four things that Regan has been able to count on all year.

* No. 1: A solid effort from Mussina. He's had some bad outings, but all in all, he's done pretty well.

* No. 2: Ground balls hit to shortstop will become outs. Ripken has had a great season defensively.

* No. 3: Fly balls hit to left become outs. Brady Anderson has played well in the field.

* No. 4: Baines will usually get four pretty good at-bats every day.

Beyond that, you have no idea, from day to day and week to week, what ill will plague the Orioles. But you can be fairly certain something is going to go wrong.

Early in the year, it was a porous bullpen. Hoiles' shoulder bothered him and the defense behind the plate suffered. Then the Orioles couldn't hit with runners in scoring position. The bullpen came together and then the rotation fell apart.

They started hitting again, the rotation pulled together and the bullpen stumbled again. They fell into a deep offensive funk from which they still haven't emerged. In the last two weeks, they've found new and inventive ways of losing.

Regan has tried to address the inconsistency as best he can, and that is through change. He watched Leo Gomez go without an RBI for the first three weeks of the year, and finally, with the team needing offense, he replaced Gomez with Jeff Manto. He waited for Bret Barberie to hit, and when he didn't, Manny Alexander went into the lineup. He waited for Armando Benitez to develop into a late-inning reliever, and it hasn't happened. He waited for the likes of Brad Pennington and Matt Nokes and Andy Van Slyke and Sid Fernandez to show any sign they were ready to contribute, and when he saw none, he made changes.

He brought up Curtis Goodwin, who got two hits a day until the All-Star break -- and then stopped hitting. And with most of the unchangeable parts of his lineup mired in slumps -- the Palmeiros and Ripkens and Andersons -- Regan made changes where he could. Goodwin went to the bench, Barberie replaced Alexander, Gomez stepped in for Manto, until Gomez got hurt.

Regan's changes have all been made, ironically enough, because of the inconsistency. He would love to have a set lineup, the players succeeding in their respective roles. He would've loved for Gomez and Barberie to hit, or Fernandez to give any indication he was going to do something other than walk five and allow two homers in 3 2/3 innings. He would love for Benitez, who's been on the Baltimore-Rochester shuttle five times now, to throw strikes and stay in the big leagues.

But that hasn't happened, and Regan has effected changes to effect change in the wins and losses.

His moves have cost him, at times. There was that game in Kansas City, where Regan pulled out Brown in the sixth inning, after 63 pitches, with a 3-1 lead, to bring in Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes, you see, had pitched well out of the bullpen a couple of times, and the way things had been going for the Orioles, Regan went with the hot hand. Rhodes got pounded and the Orioles lost.

Regan likes utility man Jeff Huson because Huson is stable and consistent. He's played Huson at third, a position Huson really hasn't played before; one night against Toronto on the last homestand, Huson basically was trying to learn bunt plays, from third base, on the job. That hurt. Kevin Bass has gone from being a productive part-time player to a fading regular.

Because of the inconsistency of Pennington and Benitez and Mike Oquist and Rhodes and his starting pitchers, Regan has, at times, overworked his bullpen. After Erickson was pummeled on Thursday, and with Boston leading 5-1 in the sixth inning, Rhodes was pitching and right-hander Oquist and left-hander Mark Lee were throwing. A waste.

On the other hand, Regan was trying to make the best out of a bad situation.

You could argue that Regan has fed into some of the inconsistency by his repeated changes. But what he's been doing is trying just about everything to make an inconsistent team consistent, plug holes when and where he can. Any time he's identified a temporary solution -- Manto in May, Goodwin and Clark in June, Moyer in July -- he's stuck with it.

What's wrong with the Orioles?

Today's answer could be wrong tomorrow. This is something PhiRegan has discovered.

Don't blame me, guys

White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, perhaps trying to deflect attention away from his decision not to retain designated hitter Julio Franco or pitcher Jack McDowell, criticized Chicago's pitching staff last week.

"Obviously, the pitching has let us down," Reinsdorf said. "Anyou have to wonder what the heck pitchers do over the winter. Other teams were on strike, too. I just don't know to what extent our pitchers kept in shape physically and mentally."

Wonder if the White Sox pitchers stopped working out because they took to heart Reinsdorf's pre-strike prediction that there might not be any more baseball until 1996.

* As the Texas Rangers charge after a wild-card spot, they are facing one very big problem. Jeff Russell, their designated ninth-inning pitcher, doesn't like pitching in the ninth inning.

He asked manager Johnny Oates and his staff to think about using him earlier in games after he returns from the disabled list in a couple of weeks.

* Left fielder Dante Bichette turned down a two-year extension offer from the Colorado Rockies that would've earned him about $8 million, and in the larger context of a declining market for players, this may seem crazy.

On the other hand, this could be a simple case of knowing your employer: The Rockies may be one of the few teams who can pay such exorbitant dollars, and Bichette may be trying to squeeze a little more from Colorado owner Jerry McMorris.

* Cleveland pitcher Dennis Martinez has torn knee cartilage and he continues to pitch. He says he doesn't want to have surgery, now or even after the season.

5/8 Boston coach Tim Johnson on knuckleballer Tim Wakefield: "It's impossible to scout him. All you can say about him is that he might throw his fastball when he's behind, but otherwise, how can you scout him? What can you write in a report about his tendencies? It's almost like a team is facing a guy they've never seen every week. What a weapon he is."

* The Dodgers are debating whether to wait for Tim Wallach's aching lower back to heal, or attempt to acquire another third baseman.

* Rockies manager Don Baylor has patented a batting glove that protects the top of a hitter's hand with a piece of rubber padding. Too late for Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell, however, who has had his hand broken in each of the last three years by inside pitches.

Knuckle II

The Padres are developing a knuckleballer, Rob Mattson, who's pitching for Double-A Memphis.

Mattson threw well early, but after recent troubles, the Padres hired Charlie Hough to tutor the right-hander. "[Mattson's] knuckleball right now is as good as anybody," said Dan Warthen, the Padres' roving pitching instructor, "and I played against Phil Niekro. He throws it close to 95 percent of the time. Right now, I think he could pitch in the big leagues with his knuckleball."

Why don't more teams train knuckleballers? Niekro once explained that there are two necessary elements to the development of a good knuckleballer -- one, he must have the guts to throw a ball 60-75 mph and know that it could get walloped, and two, he must have a manager and pitching coach willing to watch him throw something that nobody, including the pitcher, really has any control over. That combination occurs rarely.

* White Sox left-hander Wilson Alvarez lost to Seattle, then called the Mariners "a Triple-A team" last week. "If this is a Triple-A team," said Mariners third baseman Mike Blowers, "he must be a Triple-A pitcher."

* Cincinnati claimed Mariano Duncan off waivers this week, and despite a rule against discussing waivers, Reds GM Jim Bowden confirmed that he made the move to keep Atlanta from acquiring Duncan.

Bowden said he would make waiver claims, to prevent opponents from picking up needed parts in the last weeks of the season, "even if I have a $100 million payroll by the end of the year. We played by the rules, making our deals before the [trade] deadline. We're going to block teams from doing waiver deals, make teams go with what they've got after the deadline."

Worries over DiSarcina

Angels officials won't know for a few more weeks whether shortstop Gary DiSarcina, out with torn ligaments in his left thumb, will be back in time for the playoffs.

* The Cubs may attempt to trade closer Randy Myers, a free agent at the end of this season. They have a closer-in-waiting in Terry Adams, 22, who has 23 saves and a 1.26 ERA in Double-A and Triple-A this year. Wonder if the Cubs have ever heard of Armando Benitez, who was to be the Orioles' closer by the end of this year?

* Marlins scout Matt Winters went to Japan to find the next Hideo Nomo, and instead he's gotten his employers in a bit of hot water. The Yomiuri Giants considered filing tampering charges against Florida, after Winters met with Giants pitcher Masumi Kuwata on Aug. 4.

* The Phillies dumped Duncan to Cincinnati and Dave Gallagher to the Angels, ridding themselves of two classic utility players usually sought by teams preparing for a pennant drive. Then Phillies owner Bill Giles met with the players and encouraged them to take their best shot at the NL wild card. Two words: Say what?

PINCH ME

Sarasota, a Single-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, played into extra innings with Fort Myers Monday night. When the game reached the 17th inning, Sarasota outfielder Dan Collier, who wasn't in the starting lineup, turned to manager Tommy Barrett and said, "If you put me in as a pinch hitter, I guarantee I'll hit a homer." Barrett told him that if this happened, he would give Collier $50, and inserted him as pinch hitter in the 18th inning. Three balls, one strike, "The next pitch," Barrett said later, "Whamm! He hits one of those monstrous home runs he's hit this year and we win the game. . . It's one of those games you remember for a long, long time."

THE NUMBERS GAME

* Padres right fielder Tony Gwynn has hit safely in 28 of his last 31 games, batting .408 with 17 multi-hit games.

* Thomas Smith, the Rangers' 44th round pick from this year's draft, needs some fine-tuning. In his first three innings pitching for the Gulf Coast Rangers, Smith had 17 walks and 17 wild pitches.

* Middle reliever Rich Delucia leads the Cardinals' staff in victories. With five. The Cardinals' current rotation of Allen Watson, Danny Jackson, Mike Morgan, Mark Petkovsek and Donovan Osborne _ have combined for 12 wins.

* Chuck Finley picked up his 110th win with the Angels Wednesday, moving into second place on the club's all-time win list. Nolan Ryan is first, with 138.

* When Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder drove in a run Wednesday, it was his first RBI in 18 games, and his second since the All-Star break.

* The Rockies are attempting to become the first team since the 1947 Gianst to have four of the top five NL home run hitters. But the thin air in Denver has nothing to do with it.

* Tigers starter Mike Moore over his last 13 starts: 1-9, 9.62 ERA.

* During a 6-0 homestand last week, Cincinnati starters gave up five earned runs over 41.1 innings, a 1.09 ERA.

* St. Louis was averaging 4.46 runs per game before Todd Zeile was traded to the Cubs, 3.44 runs after.

* Since the deadball era, only nine teams have made it to the World Series hitting less than .250. The Braves are trying to become the 10th.

* In beating the hard-hitting Cleveland Indians earlier last week, White Sox left-hander Dave Righetti topped out at 82 mph on the radar gun.

* In beating Detroit Aug. 3, Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield won for the seventh time after a Red Sox loss.

* In the Giants' first 20 games since the All-Star Break, they allowed 52 runs in the eighth and ninth innings (a total of 36 innings).

* Over the last two years, these pitchers have the best save percentages in baseball: Milwaukee's Mike Fetters (33 saves in 36 chances), Doug Jones (46 of 51) and Jose Mesa (33 of 37). Even with the addition of the wildcard, there are a few clubs already left to play out the string, facing uncertain futures. To wit:

Toronto Blue Jays: They've been terrible the last two years, and they'll probably just get worse. Second baseman Roberto Alomar could be leaving after this year, and they're stuck with declining Joe Carter and John Olerud. No answers to pitching problems, either.

Chicago White Sox: For the last few years, pitching has been the strength of this organization. But Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere have all pitched poorly this year, and the position players aren't getting any younger (Tim Raines, Lance Johnson, Ozzie Guillen). Bad times ahead.

St. Louis Cardinals: The Brewery actually spent serious money in the offseason, signing Danny Jackson and Tom Henke, and then dealt for Ken Hill. Jackson has been a complete flop, Hill was traded, and now the Cardinals can't figure out a way to score any runs. No end in sight to this misery.

San Francisco Giants: The Giants loaded up a couple of years ago by signing Barry Bonds and pinning down Matt Williams with long-term contract. Now the Giants are reportedly losing millions of dollars, part of the reason they traded pitcher Mark Portugal and center fielder Darren Lewis to the Reds last month for Deion Sanders. Hard to imagine the Giants being a serious contender again until after Williams and Bonds are gone and San Francisco can afford more talent.

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