CHICAGO — CHICAGO -- The Orioles boarded last night's charter to Boston with mixed emotions. They now fully realize they will travel at least the next eight weeks without Eric Davis, who will undergo surgery Friday to remove a three-inch mass from his abdomen. At the same time, they welcome the ascendance of his two young understudies and the return of Mike Mussina to star status.
While the team was confirming Davis' pending surgery, it was riding a third straight powerful start by Mussina and a command performance from outfielders Jeffrey Hammonds and Tony Tarasco. They teamed for a series-splitting 10-2 win over the Chicago White Sox.
Starting in right field, Tarasco forced home the game's first run by accepting a bases-loaded walk. Starting in left, Hammonds hit a double and a two-run home run to extend his hitting streak to seven games.
The Orioles destroyed the remnants of a team-wide slump with 13 hits, four by fill-in first baseman B. J. Surhoff and three apiece by Brady Anderson and Mike Bordick. Bordick enjoyed a pick-me-up game, driving in three runs and robbing the White Sox of a run with a sprawling first-inning stop.
And Hammonds has not escaped notice. "I feel like he's starting to play like everybody thinks he's capable of playing. He's relaxed," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "Sometimes last year he tried to do too much. When you try to do too much, sometimes you swing at bad pitches, you start pressing and it starts going the other way. He's an exceptional young player."
Asked about Davis' absence, Hammonds replied simply, "It hurts." He and Davis talk regularly, leaving his opportunity cut with regret.
"Eric can do so many things. Eric carried the team early in the year. Eric showed what he can do when he's out there healthy," Hammonds said. "I don't care how good you're playing, Eric can always help. But you can't dwell on it. It's done. He's been down a couple weeks now. At least we know he's going to get better. That's the main thing."
Mindful of his absence, the Orioles have still prospered without him. Since Davis last appeared May 25 in Cleveland, they are 9-2. The recent performances of Tarasco and Hammonds has eased any sense of urgency.
Hammonds no longer seems crushed by his potential or held hostage by injuries. Last night he proved he's discovered the value of working a count. "The first inning he laid off all those tough pitches, then mashed one. Last year he probably would have swung at them. The next time he laid off, then got a good one and tallywhacked it," Johnson said.
A spare part in spring training, trade bait in early April, Hammonds now enjoys another chance to raise his visibility. He remains sensitive to questions of his standing as a reserve outfielder and organizational question mark.
"It's not a situation where I'm trying to prove anything," he said. "If that happens, so be it."
Mussina's outing was powerful for several reasons. Aside from raw numbers, his 115-pitch complete game enabled a worn bullpen to prepare for today's doubleheader against the Red Sox.
The third straight absence of White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas was especially significant given Mussina's start. Thomas owns a lifetime .476 average against Mussina with six home runs and 11 RBIs in 42 at-bats.
"It doesn't change anything. It can't change anything. You still have to focus on what you have to do," Mussina said after winning his eighth straight decision. "I just feel fortunate he's not in there."
Albert Belle tried to compensate with three hits, including a home run to break up Mussina's shutout. The rest of the Sox's lineup managed two hits.
Right now, Mussina (8-1) seems impervious to all foes. In his last three starts he has allowed only four runs and 11 hits in 24 1/3 innings. He came within two outs of a perfect game on May 30, then followed up with 6 1/3 strong innings June 4 against the New York Yankees. Mussina left the game with a shutout intact, then watched a slipshod bullpen effort cost him a decision.
"The [Cleveland] game was just a unique situation. The New York game was kind of like today. I made some good pitches and got a big out when I had to," said Mussina. "Today they got the two solo home runs that made it 5-2 and we came right back and scored some more the next inning. That's the way it's been going and why we've been successful."
After allowing a double and a single in the first inning, Mussina faced the minimum number of hitters in the next five innings. He lost his shutout when Belle cranked a 1-1 pitch for his 14th home run. Two batters later the underrated Lyle Mouton drove a fastball over the center-field fence for his third homer.
Mussina, whose only loss of the season came in his first start at Texas on April 6, also is 14-4 in his last 22 starts on the road.
"My mechanics are allowing me to get the ball where I want to a lot better than last year," he said.
By the time the White Sox inflicted any damage on Mussina, a once-slumping Orioles lineup had erupted for five runs against White Sox starter James Baldwin (3-8).
Baldwin had dodged punishment throughout the first four innings, walking three in the fourth inning besides allowing a double to Surhoff for the Orioles' first run.
In the fifth Anderson led off with the first of three singles. Roberto Alomar reached on a fielder's choice, stole second base and advanced on a passed ball.
Hitting in his ninth straight game, Rafael Palmeiro, the night's designated hitter, then doubled into the right-field corner, scoring Alomar.
Surhoff made the score 3-0 by singling. Hammonds then turned on Baldwin for his sixth home run and RBIs No. 17 and 18. No more is the talent within a brittle body. He is running with noticeably more abandon and wasting few at-bats.
In Hammonds' last 26 starts, he has hit safely in 21 games. He has shown extra-base power, speed and a competent glove. In a sentence, he has shown traces of what the Orioles had long hoped for but had recently stopped believing he could be.
Hammonds' homer was his fourth in his last 12 games. During his seven-game tear, Hammonds is batting .524 (11-for-21) with five extra-base hits.
Ahead 5-2, the Orioles pressed their lead with a four-run eighth against reliever Bill Simas. At that point, all weekend slump talk ceased.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park, Boston
Time: Doubleheader begins at 5 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM) Game 1 starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (8-2, 3.58) vs. Red Sox's Vaughn Eshelman (0-0, 5.79)
Game 2 starters: Orioles' Shawn Boskie (3-2, 6.35) vs. Red Sox's Tim Wakefield (2-4, 4.39)
Moose on the loose
Since giving up six runs in five innings in Seattle on May 18, Orioles starter Mike Mussina has been on a roll. A closer look:
Date Opp. ....... IP .. H .. ER .. Dec
5-24 at Cle. .... 7 ... 9 ... 3 .. W, 8-3
5-30 vs. Cle. ... 9 ... 1 ... 0 .. W, 3-0
6-4 vs. N.Y. ... 6 1/3 5 ... 2 .. ND
6-9 at Chi. ..... 9 ... 5 ... 2 .. W, 10-2
Pub Date: 6/10/97