The Seattle Mariners didn't ask to be anointed, but you couldn't walk by a newsstand this spring without seeing some baseball yearbook trumpetting them as the 1997 world champions in waiting.
The Orioles got their share of positive press clippings, too, so the four-game series with the Mariners that begins tonight at Camden Yards should not lack for fan interest or competitive intrigue -- especially after a rainout in Chicago last night pushed Seattle ace Randy Johnson into a major pitching duel tonight with right-hander Mike Mussina.
"There's no question that the Mariners have the most explosive offensive ballclub in the game," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said. "They also are very sound defensively. I think with the things they did with the additions to their pitching staff over the winter, they are the odds-on team to beat."
That appears to be the consensus in the Orioles' clubhouse as well as the national media. The Mariners did not reach the postseason last year, but they gained tremendous national respect for making a run at the wild-card berth in spite of a string of injuries that cost them Johnson for most of the season and several other star players for shorter periods.
"I think their team and our team were very similar last year," center fielder Brady Anderson said. "They lost arguably the best pitcher in baseball last year and they still made a run at it. They are a very solid, explosive team.
"I'm sure they will tell you, they had a hard test losing Randy Johnson and having to compete for the wild card. When the race heats up, the games are closer and that's when the team with the best pitching really has the edge. It might have been different last year having Randy Johnson."
Which is why they are getting so much respect this season. Johnson is back -- pitching as though he never left -- and the Mariners acquired veteran left-hander Jeff Fassero during the winter to shore up their starting rotation.
"They've been good the last few years," catcher Chris Hoiles said, "and they should be better with what they did picking up Fassero and getting Randy back. They've got a very good team very comparable to what we have."
The Mariners haven't really caught stride yet, but superstar Ken Griffey carried the offense through April and Johnson (4-0) has removed any doubt about his ability to rebound from the back injury that held him to a handful of starts last spring.
The Orioles looked as if they were going to catch a big break this weekend. Johnson was scheduled to pitch last night against the Chicago White Sox, which would have meant he would miss the series at Camden Yards. Now, Johnson will be looking to tie former Oriole Dave McNally's American League record of 17 straight victories.
That presents a major challenge for an Orioles lineup that lost right fielder Eric Davis to a hamstring injury last night, and things won't be any easier for the Orioles pitchers who must face a lineup that includes Griffey, Jay Buhner, 1996 MVP runner-up Alex Rodriguez and two-time batting champion Edgar Martinez.
"I don't look forward to it," Davey Johnson said. "How do you pitch to Griffey, Buhner and Martinez? There are tough outs all the way down the line. When you go out there to make a pitching change, you're always wondering, 'How am I going to get out of here?' "
He figured it out last year, when the Orioles and Mariners were vying for the American League wild-card berth. The Orioles played Seattle seven times in a two-week period down the stretch and won four times to keep the surging Mariners from gaining any ground. There still was nearly a month to play, but Johnson believed that was a pivotal juncture in the Orioles' drive to the American League Championship Series.
The Orioles split a four-game series in Seattle -- which was spiced with controversy when Johnson pulled closer Randy Myers out of a difficult late-inning situation -- and went on to win the wild-card berth and reach the ALCS.
Best in the AL?
Where the Orioles and Mariners rank in the major categories in the American League through Tuesday:
............. O's ... M's
Batting ..... 4th ... 1st
Runs ........ 4th ... 2nd
Home runs ... 4th ... 5th
Slugging .... 4th ... 3rd
ERA ......... 2nd ... 11th
Strikeouts .. 2nd ... 4th
Pub Date: 5/08/97