The Orioles are lost in a Twilight Zone right now. They are close enough to the wild-card front-runners, the Texas Rangers, to believe that if they whipped off three or four straight victories, they could be right back in the hunt.
And yet, they are far enough behind and have been so inconsistent that it's highly improbable to think the Orioles will make one last run.
They are too close to give up (which is what the Oakland Athletics have ostensibly done, a little absurd considering that the wild-card front-runners are mediocre clubs) and start thinking about 1996. That's why they've talked about going after Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Charlie Hayes this week, a good idea if they don't have to give up anything more than second-line prospects. They rent him for a month and see what happens and then, if need be, dump him after the year is over.
But at the same time, they're too far out of the running to proceed without at least considering the future.
What the Orioles should do, then, is try to address both the future and the present at the same time, and here are some suggestions.
1) Determine who among the trio of Ben McDonald, Scott Erickson and Kevin Brown is going to come back next year, and pitch them accordingly. McDonald has earned $4.5 million and has just two wins this year, and it seems highly unlikely the Orioles will want him back unless he takes a huge pay cut (say, into the range of $1.5 million to $2 million).
If they aren't going to bring him back, why rush him back into the rotation once he comes off the disabled list? Why not keep Rick Krivda in the rotation, and call up Jimmy Haynes and give him a few starts? McDonald had been inconsistent before his injury, and he'll probably be inconsistent after he comes back, so it's not as if the Orioles would be giving up a sure thing to pitch Krivda and Haynes.
They should apply the same test for Brown and Erickson. Both have struggled -- Brown hasn't won since June 2, and although Erickson has six wins for the Orioles, his failure to get past the fourth inning lately has drained the bullpen -- and if the Orioles don't intend to retain them for next year, why keep them in the rotation? (The bet here is that Brown is the only one kept among the three, although he probably would have to take far less than his $4.225 million salary of 1995.)
And if they don't plan to keep any one or two or all three, the Orioles should strongly consider dealing McDonald, Brown or Erickson in the next few days; why not trade them to a contender and get something for them, like a prospect or two to augment the depleted farm system, rather than just dumping them in the off-season?
2) Play Mark Smith every day. The alternative is playing veteran Kevin Bass, who has slumped since late June and really hasn't helped much. Why not try to get a read on whether Smith can be counted on in some capacity next year?
3) Play Curtis Goodwin every day after he comes off the disabled list. Play him in the leadoff spot. Might as well try to get him accustomed to that role now, hitting with more patience.
4) Use Armando Benitez as the setup man. Terry Clark has done a good job in that role and he'll be back in 1996, but Benitez is supposedly going to be The Man in the future. (And if the team falls out of the wild-card race in the next week or two, let Benitez assume Doug Jones' job for the last few weeks of the season).
5) Play Manny Alexander every day. He'll be back next year, in one capacity or another. Bret Barberie probably won't.
The Orioles should keep trying to fight their way back into the race. But there's no reason they should sacrifice their foresight in doing so.
Pitcher's bats boost DeShields
Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Delino DeShields started hitting again after he began using bats left behind by pitcher Willie Banks, who was waived to the Florida Marlins. Banks' bats are slightly lighter than DeShields', and in one recent four-game stretch, DeShields went 8-for-17 with two homers.
* The Twins are debating whether to spend the money to keep second baseman Chuck Knoblauch -- Kirby Puckett is lobbying hard for Knoblauch's return -- and if they don't keep him, he would be an excellent alternative for the Orioles in the event Roberto Alomar's price tag is too high.
* Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio was miffed after Reds center fielder Darren Lewis bunted with Cincinnati ahead by six runs in the fifth inning last Sunday, glaring into the Reds dugout and saying something to shortstop Barry Larkin. But Reds manager Davey Johnson was miffed by Biggio's indignant reaction.
"That's aggravating to me that losers think they can dictate how I should play the game," Johnson said. "If they don't want to play the game and defense the plays, that's their problem. But don't tell me how to run my team. My idea is to beat a team into submission, not barely beat them."
* California manager Marcel Lachemann on the Angels' sudden slump: "It's like being in a plane, hitting an air pocket and dropping 5,000 feet. You hope you're more than 5,000 feet off the ground, and we were around 10,000."
Palmer may be back in '95
When Texas third baseman Dean Palmer tore his biceps tendon in June, it was thought he would be out for the year. But he has started fielding grounders and hitting off a tee, and the Rangers are hoping he could be ready in time for the postseason.
* Bret Saberhagen has been getting bombed since being traded to Colorado, and now the Rockies are giving him extra rest. Remember that the Orioles and Boston Red Sox were wary of Saberhagen, believing that a small tear in his rotator cuff could become something of far greater significance.
* How young are the Pittsburgh Pirates? "We had our father-son game the other day," coach Rich Donnelly said. "Our guys thought they were supposed to call their fathers to come in for the game."
* Rob Dibble isn't much of a pitcher anymore, but he's good for some amusement. He raised a few chuckles from his Milwaukee Brewers teammates last week when he assumed a Mohawk haircut given to him by teammate Greg Vaughn.
"I've seen it before," said catcher Joe Oliver, who played with Dibble in Cincinnati. "He was totally bald once."
Polonia rips Steinbrenner
Free and clear of George Steinbrenner's control, Luis Polonia, now with the Atlanta Braves, said that Steinbrenner "is the manager of the Yankees. Buck [Showalter] is just his yes man. Everybody knows that. That's why everybody is unhappy there. . . . Buck is just a puppet handled by George Steinbrenner. All the players know that. He can't do things he wants and that's a shame because he's a good manager. . . . He's a good manager, and if he got fired by the Yankees today, he could have a job by tomorrow."
* There's almost no chance that pitcher Aaron Sele, coming back from arm problems, will join the Red Sox before the end of the year. He lasted just 2 1/3 innings in his latest minor-league rehab start and complained of tightness in his shoulder.
* It's inevitable that the Dodgers' Ramon Martinez will pitch against brother Pedro, who throws for the Expos. But they don't want it to happen.
"It would be too hard," Pedro said. "Nobody in my family wants to see it. It would be too hard, especially on my mom. I don't think she could handle it."
* Boston manager Kevin Kennedy understands leverage. Sitting in first place, he lobbied for a contract extension, pining for what he called "long-term security." Mark Lewis could be the player to be named going from Cincinnati to Detroit to complete the David Wells deal. If he is, he could replace Lou Whitaker at second base. It seems likely that Whitaker and Alan Trammell, teammates and a double-play combination all these years, will retire. If they do, their final act could be played out in Camden Yards the last week of the season.
* The Reds suggested two adjustments for Dave Burba after he was traded from San Francisco in July: They moved him from the first base side to the third base side of the pitching rubber, and they encouraged him to throw his split-fingered fastball. Until getting hit hard Thursday, Burba was 4-0 with a 1.02 ERA since joining the Reds.
* Paul Menhart, the Toronto rookie who one-hit the Orioles, entered Wednesday's game against Cleveland in relief, with the bases loaded. His first pitch was closer to hitting the on-deck circle than either Omar Vizquel, the hitter, or catcher Sandy Martinez. "It was a fastball," Menhart said. "I held on to it a little too long."
Lee Smith hits the weights
Hard to believe, but Lee Smith, who seemed to take pride in his natural conditioning (or lack thereof), has started weight training for the first time in his career.
"Guys see me in the weight room and they say, 'What are you doing?' " Smith said. "I tell them I'm getting ready for hunting season and that I'll be in shape when I'm walking the hills with a rifle in one hand and a shotgun in the other."
Smith is trying to make himself stronger for the final weeks of the season -- a time when he faded for the Orioles last year. "I felt real tired about a month ago," Smith said. "But I feel real good, real strong, now."
* Should the Red Sox and Angels meet in the playoffs, there could be postseason brawling. "We hate them," said Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn. "We don't hate them personally or individually, but we hate them."
* The Braves could lose No. 1 pick Chad Hutchinson, a high school pitcher from San Diego. Hutchinson has begun football practice at Stanford, and as soon as he begins classes Sept. 27, the Braves can't sign him.
Atlanta reportedly has offered Hutchinson between $1.25 million and $1.5 million, and Hutchinson supposedly is holding out for $2 million. A college freshman turning down that much money is idiotic, especially when you consider that Darin Erstad, the No. 1 pick overall, signed for $1.575 million (Hutchinson was picked 26th overall).
Hutchinson will make plenty of money once he reaches the majors, and he's risking it all by not signing; it's not as if quarterbacks never get hurt.
Eck, La Russa a package deal?
Whether Dennis Eckersley returns to Oakland for the 1996 season may depend on whether Tony La Russa remains as manager.
* When the Blue Jays go looking to augment their roster this off-season, manager Cito Gaston hopes they obtain a closer.
* Said Gaston: "Someone in Boston asked me if I've seen a better combo than Mo Vaughn and Jose Canseco. I said, 'Yeah, the entire Indians lineup.' "
* Cincinnati public relations director Mike Ringering is soliciting contributions of paper ever since owner Marge Schott told him to use only one piece of paper for the media notes, a savings of approximately $80 (the notes having been reduced from five pages to one).
The St. Louis Cardinals sent five bundles of paper, and the Braves have promised seven or eight packs. Wonder whether this is the revenue-sharing plan the owners have talked about implementing for the last three years?
DUGOUT HOT SEATS
There are many changes in the offing among major-league managers:
New York Yankees: Owner George Steinbrenner said this week that those in charge of player personnel will be held accountable for demise of the Yankees (wonder if that means Steinbrenner will fire himself). Buck Showalter probably is gone, although he may prefer it that way.
Chicago White Sox: Interim manager Terry Bevington is just than, an interim manager. White Sox would like Tony La Russa, although La Russa says he has no plans to change jobs.
Detroit Tigers: Sparky Anderson to step down after the season is over. Triple-A manager Tom Runnells front-runner to take over.
Orioles: Could be that Phil Regan's future depends on whether O's hire a new general manager. If so, Mr. X may want his own skipper.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Columnists are blaming Tommy Lasorda for not running away with NL West title with his talented group. Dodgers' front office isn't exactly going out of its way to deflect criticism. Bill Russell waits in the wings.
San Diego Padres: Bruce Bochy on a one-year deal, and he TC could be gone if CEO Larry Lucchino looks to replace Randy Smith as GM.
New York Mets: Some in NY organization worried if Dallas Green's brusque style will hurt the confidence of young players. Could go after Showalter if he leaves Yanks, or bring back Bobby Valentine from Japan.
Cincinnati Reds: Davey Johnson's deal with Reds will be over, and owner Marge Schott doesn't like him much. If the Reds go with Ray Knight, Johnson could be out of a job. * Not one of the nine players in Philadelphia's starting lineup Wednesday night played for the Phillies in 1994.
* There's a very good possibility the Texas Rangers will play only four of the last 50 games of the year against teams with sub.-.500 records. No matter what the final number is, the bottom line is Texas is ripping through the soft part of its schedule.
* The Los Angeles Dodgers sweep of the Expos was their first in Montreal since Aug. 19-21, 1980. Or, to apply some perspective, two years before The Streak began.
* The Cincinnati Reds' starters had a 1.09 ERA on a 6-0 homestand that concluded before last week's swing through Atlanta and Florida. In six games against the Braves and Marlins, the starters had an ERA of 6.12.
* After scoring two or fewer runs in 33 of their first 101 games, the Braves scored 48 in the first six games of the current homestand, an average of eight per game.
* Because of the Blue Jays' injury problem, Toronto's Triple-A affiliate Syracuse has used 31 different pitchers this year.
* Before Thursday's game, the Astros third basemen were last in the NL in homers (2) and RBI (33). The Rockies were first, with 29 homers and 71 RBI.
* In his first 10 starts, Rangers' right-hander Kevin Gross was 1-6 with a 9.89 ERA. In his last 13 starts, he is 6-5, 3.89.
* More chronicles from a lost season: The St. Louis strikeout leaders are two relievers, Rich DeLucia and Jeff Parrett, with 63 and 62, respectively.
* When Boston achieved a 14.5 game lead earlier this week, it was the largest lead for the Red Sox since Sept. 18, 1946. The Tyson-McNeeley fiasco caught the attention of many major-leaguers. Reds pitcher Jose Rijo said, "I'm suing the cable company. They promised me a minute and a half and they fell one second short. And nobody is going to jail over this. They can talk all they want about Al Capone, but those people committed grand larceny and nobody is going to jail. What a country!" And this from Florida's David Weathers, after he gave up two homers to Chicago's Sammy Sosa: "I was more stunned than that guy Tyson fought. I was more stunned than McNeeley. And I didn't have a trainer in my corner to throw in the towel."