The Orioles can score runs. They can hit homers. They're capable of good defense, and good pitching, nobody can doubt that.
In fact, the last lingering question about the Orioles, as they climb into postseason contention, is whether they can beat good teams, whether they can do the little things needed to beat good teams. They've embarrassed Milwaukee and Minnesota, but the Orioles haven't won a series against a team over .500 since May.
That may change. Today. Last night, the Orioles beat Seattle, 4-1, in the first of a three-game series at Camden Yards. Mike Mussina became only the third pitcher in the majors to win 16 games this year, following Atlanta's John Smoltz and the Yankees' Andy Pettitte. The Mariners hit only one ball out of the infield after the first of Mussina's seven innings, and the right-hander held Seattle to two hits overall and struck out eight to win his fifth straight start.
Eddie Murray remains two homers away from 500 for his career, after hitting a single in two at-bats and drawing two walks against the Mariners. The crowd of 47,679 -- the sixth-largest at Oriole Park -- was poised to witness history. Intent on history, really: When Seattle starter Matt Wagner (3-4) walked Murray in his first plate appearance, fans booed lustily.
Despite winning for the 15th time in their past 21 games, the Orioles failed to gain ground on the Yankees, who beat California and maintained a six-game lead in the American League East. But the Orioles (66-58) pulled to within 1 1/2 games of the Chicago White Sox (69-58) in the wild-card race, drawing to a tie in the loss column.
Should they beat Seattle tonight, they will be nine games over .500 for the first time since June 6. They've never been 10 games over .500 this season.
The Orioles don't have to play well against good teams to make the playoffs. They could continue to pummel subpar teams and lose to teams over .500, without any real effect on their playoff hopes. Twenty-six of the 37 games remaining on the Orioles' schedule are against teams under .500.
But if this team is to be a serious factor, the Orioles must cross that last hurdle, creating opportunity and capitalizing on that opportunity, the way the Yankees did in June and July, the way the Texas Rangers have done. Make the big play, throw the key pitch, move the runners when they're on base. Carpe diem: Seize the day.
The Orioles played in this mode against the Mariners, a struggling and banged-up team also contending for the wild-card spot.
"It was a total effort," said Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson. "Offensively, we didn't do a lot of damage, but we seemed to put together some runs without hitting a home run."
Yes. The Orioles have won without hitting a homer in their last two games at Camden Yards, something they didn't do once from May 26 to Aug. 13, a span of 31 games. Bit by bit, the Orioles' lineup put together a three-run rally in the fourth inning, after Seattle took a 1-0 lead in the third on a homer by Mark Whiten.
The Orioles had never before seen Seattle rookie Matt Wagner and his unorthodox delivery, and had one hit the first three innings.
But the Orioles adjusted, something hitting coach Rick Down thinks they're doing better as the season has progressed. They're hitting the ball where it's pitched, he said, swinging at better pitches.
Bobby Bonilla, batting left-handed, slammed a one-out double between center fielder Ken Griffey and left fielder Rich Amaral. B. J. Surhoff hit a short fly toward left that fell, and though Amaral pretended to have a shot at the catch Bonilla ignored him and scored standing. Tie game.
Cal Ripken was next, and with each swing, it became more and more apparent he was trying to drive a pitch to right field. He hit a high foul down the line, fouled off another to the right, and another.
Wagner threw inside and Ripken stepped and, with his swing, he muscled a looper to right field, over the infield, and Surhoff rambled home with the lead run. All and all, it was one of the best at-bats by an Oriole this season, a sign of the times.
"I think the club is doing a lot of little things," manager Davey Johnson said, "moving runners, using the whole field. Cal's at-bat was a great example of that."
As Ripken did before him, Murray worked the count. Three balls and two strikes. Wagner began his motion, Ripken broke from first -- a run-and-hit -- and Murray whistled a liner over second. Ripken slid into third, barely ahead of a strong throw by Whiten. If Ripken hadn't have been running, he would've stopped at second.
The aggressiveness paid off. Chris Hoiles, like Ripken, altered his swing in an attempt to push the ball to the right side and hit a slow roller to the left of second baseman Joey Cora. With no chance for a double play, no chance at the plate, all Cora could do was flip to first. The Orioles led 3-1, the benefits of sound fundamentals and aggressiveness.
Mussina shut down the Mariners through seven, and the Orioles added a run in the bottom of that inning, when Anderson walked, stole second and scored on a single by Bonilla. All the Orioles had to do was get through the last two innings.
It wasn't easy. Two outs into the Seattle eighth, Jesse Orosco allowed a single and walked Griffey and Alan Mills, in relief of Orosco, walked Edgar Martinez. Seattle catcher Dan Wilson came to the plate as the potential lead run.
But Mills struck out Wilson swinging, his final two pitches registering 95 mph and 96 mph, and Mills bounced off the mound and charged back to the dugout with all the alacrity of a kid running home with a good report card. In a larger context, for a team lacking in consistent relief, Mills' outing was extremely important, a boost of confidence, and another indication the Orioles could be for real.
"We're playing now like we were expected to play earlier," Mills said. "Everybody in here knew we were better than we were playing."
They're playing to expectations now. And creating new ones.
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Oriole Park
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Sterling Hitchcock (12-5, 5.26) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (7-10, 5.04)
% Tickets: 3,500 remain
Pub Date: 8/21/96