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This year, no fear in Jacobs trips

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEVELAND -- In prior years, the Orioles came to Jacobs Field to find out how good they were, which wasn't good enough.

No matter how well they fared against the rest of the American League, they were always made aware of their second-tier status when they came to Cleveland and absorbed a weekend of whackings at the hands of the powerful Indians.

But times have changed.

After yesterday's 8-3 defeat of the Indians, the Orioles have split their first two games of 1997 at Jacobs Field, looking nothing like a team that is overmatched.

It's the best gauge yet of just how far the Orioles have come this year with their reconfigured blend of pitching, defense and timely hitting.

Their personal disaster area, Jacobs Field, is just another ballpark now.

"Coming in here doesn't hold the same [intimidating] aura it held for us the past few years," said Mike Mussina, yesterday's winning pitcher. "Things are different. We're pretty good, and they're not playing as well as expected yet."

Not that the Orioles have come in here and embarrassed the Indians; they managed just two hits in a loss Friday night and start rookie Mike Johnson today, which means they could easily lose a three-game series for the first time this year.

But with their league-best 31-14 record and their dominating pitching, the Orioles obviously are no longer just fodder for the Indians.

"I feel better" coming to Cleveland, said first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who hit a three-run homer yesterday, "although [the Indians] are still a great team."

Everyone feels better about coming to Cleveland now that Albert Belle is in Chicago, Kenny Lofton is in Atlanta, Carlos Baerga is in New York and Jose Mesa is in long relief after failing to deliver as the closer.

The Indians still have a loaded lineup built around sluggers David Justice, Matt Williams, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, but their pitching is hurting and their parts just don't seem to add up to the same, fearsome whole.

With Jack McDowell injured, the Indians have only three reliable starters in Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser and Chad Ogea. And their bullpen is no longer a sure thing with Mesa struggling.

They're ranked ninth in the league in earned-run average; only four teams have allowed more runs.

"Now we feel like we have a chance to win games coming in here," Mussina said. "Before, this was one place where we really didn't seem to have a chance. They just killed us."

He isn't kidding. The Indians swept all six games between the teams at Jacobs Field in 1995, then won four of six last year during the season. The Orioles' pitchers allowed 54 runs in the six games last year.

"It was really frustrating," Mussina said. "You try to avoid situations like that. All you can do is keep plugging away and cling to the hope that things are going to turn around."

They did, stunningly, when the Orioles upset the Indians in the first round of the American League playoffs last year. The series clincher was only the third win in Cleveland for the Orioles since the baseball strike of 1994.

That surely has helped the Orioles feel less overmatched at Jacobs Field this year, but what has helped most of all is their improved pitching and the confidence developed this spring during one of the best starts in club history.

They put all their assets on display yesterday before the usual sellout crowd. They hit with power, got solid pitching from Mussina and played superbly in the field, with Roberto Alomar making two four-star putouts at second base and throwing out a runner at the plate with a relay.

The Indians' Steve Kline was making his first major-league start, and the Orioles did just what a good team is supposed to do to such a pitcher in such a situation.

They jumped all over him.

Poor Kline lasted just 1 2/3 innings and was on his way to the minors by the end of the game,

"It's easy to pitch when you keep getting runs [in support]," Mussina said. "We played a good overall game today. The defense was tremendous."

It was only the fifth win for the Orioles in 18 games at Jacobs Field, where they have never won a regular-season series.

It's asking a lot to expect them to win again today with Johnson starting, but they would make a particularly positive statement if they could pull it off.

This weekend's series and the two-gamer in New York tomorrow and Tuesday are a chance for them to establish themselves as the team to beat in the AL.

"It's a good, early test," Mussina said. "We've been playing good baseball. We came in here 30-13. New York and Cleveland both started slowly and have been starting to play better lately.

"It's a good test for us. The question is whether we can keep it going."

In prior years, they couldn't keep anything going at Jacobs Field.

But as thousands of fans left early yesterday, long before the last out was recorded, it was obvious that this year is a different year, indeed.

Pub Date: 5/25/97

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