O's seeking other half of equation Coming out of break, AL East leaders eye wire-to-wire run; Room for improvement; Starter, left-handed bat top team's wish list

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Tonight, the Orioles try to follow a tough act. Their own.

After producing the fourth-best start in franchise history and all the expectations that come with it, the Orioles begin the second half of what an entire organization -- an entire city -- believes to be a special season. They carry an American League-best 55-30 record, an unyielding core of starting pitchers, a calculating manager unafraid to trumpet his team's superiority and a seven-game lead over the defending world champions.

So what now?

Given three days off and last night's 3-1 exhibition loss at Triple-A Rochester to rest their wounds, the Orioles hope to use the 10-game homestand that begins tonight against the Milwaukee Brewers to put aside a disconcerting 10-11 finish to the first half. Good enough to give themselves a chance at becoming the third AL team to be in first place every day of the season, along with the 1927 Yankees and the 1984 Tigers, the Orioles must also deal with the pressure accompanying such a possibility.

Before Sunday's game in Detroit, manager Davey Johnson was queried about his first-half disappointments. "The clubs down below us, they can talk about disappointments," Johnson replied with a leader's verbal swagger. "We don't talk about disappointments up here."

The Orioles aren't talking of complacency, either. The front office continues to pursue another hitter and a starting pitcher. Owner Peter Angelos has indicated a willingness to finance any move for "value." And Johnson would like nothing more than to increase the distance between his team and the rest of the division before reaching a brutal September schedule. For that to happen, the Orioles must grant themselves much of a wish list built around acquisitions and recoveries.

Big Three must remain huge

Jimmy Key, Scott Erickson and Mike Mussina combined for 33 first-half wins, more than any other trio, and are chiefly responsible for the team's league-best 3.63 ERA. The Atlanta Braves have long avoided losing streaks with the same formula. The Orioles didn't suffer a three-game skid until June 28 (and scored only three runs doing so).

The trends look positive. Key's ERA has shriveled his past three half-seasons from 5.28 to 4.18 to 2.55. Erickson has 19 wins beginning last August and is a noted second-half pitcher. Before this season, Mussina had a career 3.71 ERA before the break, 3.39 afterward.

A capable bullpen has allowed Johnson to handle his starters carefully. Key (12-4) went beyond 120 pitches once, and that occurred April 13, when Erickson lost count. Key, 19-11 since last year's All-Star break, is on pace to make more than 30 starts for the first time since 1993. True, the bullpen blew four saves chances behind Mussina (10-2), but only in one of those starts did he go more than 6 1/3 innings. Erickson, coming off the worst start of his major-league career, attributed some of this season's early success to laying off weights last winter. The only concern is whether his altered regimen will hurt his durability late.

Kamieniecki needs to hold up

The Orioles' consistent starting pitching and league-best ERA would have been tougher to achieve without Kamieniecki, whose importance extended beyond a 6-4 record. Kamieniecki, 33, was projected to serve in long relief at the end of spring training. Instead, he has started 16 games and pitched 96 1/3 innings one year after elbow rehabilitation limited him to seven appearances with the Yankees. Kamieniecki has never pitched more than 188 innings in a major-league season, and not more than 117 1/3 since 1994.

The Orioles are 9-7 in his starts, but only 6-10 in starts by Shawn Boskie, Rocky Coppinger and Mike Johnson. By averaging more than six innings per start, Kamieniecki has helped preserve the league's most feared bullpen.

Kamieniecki enters the second half trying to overcome "dead arm" syndrome. He would also like to receive Key's or Mussina's run support. The Orioles have scored more than five runs in three of Kamieniecki's starts. Six times, he has been backed by three runs or fewer.

Deal for another starter

Numbers that don't lie: The Orioles are 40-13 when the Big Three start, 15-17 behind anyone else. Davey Johnson has asked for help, but likely must wait until the end of this month.

True, the Orioles have thrived without receiving much from a revolving fifth starter. However, general manager Pat Gillick and assistant Kevin Malone are well aware that the Yankees have improved with Hideki Irabu and Dwight Gooden. The Cleveland Indians, who may await in the postseason, are also looking to muscle up. Recent reports on Coppinger's elbow have been favorable, but the club dare not count on him.

Barring injury, the Orioles should have enough pitching to take them through through September. Obtaining Curt Schilling from the hopeless Philadelphia Phillies or any of several arms from the receding Montreal Expos (Pedro Martinez, Carlos Perez or Jeff Juden) would allow them to go four-deep into October.

Find a left-handed hitter

Carrying 12 pitchers has left Johnson little infield depth. Seldom-seen Jeff Reboulet is his only reserve, which came into bTC play during the team's series in Atlanta, when B. J. Surhoff finished the game at third base and Cal Ripken at shortstop. Necessity rarely allows Johnson to pinch hit; he has received only four RBIs off the bench. Without Jerome Walton, the bench contains only one left-handed weapon, Tony Tarasco, to counter right-handed relievers.

Hoiles must be able to catch

No slam intended at Lenny Webster. Since Hoiles suffered a slight tear of his right medial collateral ligament June 16, the take-charge Webster has provided the Orioles much at the plate and behind it, starting 16 of the 20 games.

Still, the Orioles' offensive free fall and disturbing 10-11 slide have coincided with Hoiles' absence. Batting eighth, he provides a powerful deterrent, having averaged more than 22 home runs the past five seasons and ranking second on the team in on-base percentage.

The June 27 trade for Geronimo Berroa altered the lineup's dynamics. No longer can Hoiles return as a designated hitter. To hit, he must also catch. The ugly alternative is to carry three catchers, one who can't receive and another, Tim Laker, who's hurt and overmatched.

Palmeiro must find rhythm

No one has given the Orioles more dramatic hits than their first baseman. He homered in the bottom of the 10th inning to beat the Yankees on June 3 and delivered a two-run, two-out, ninth-inning hit to beat the Seattle Mariners on May 18. But

Palmeiro, a career .298 hitter, still hasn't ignited, batting .289, .269 and .206 in the season's first three months. Noted for his consistency, Palmeiro owns three batting streaks of 10 games or more, but has also endured one run of 20 games and another of 62 at-bats without a home run.

The Orioles don't need a repeat of last year's 142 RBIs from Palmeiro, but they would enjoy a three-month return to the form that made him one of the game's most dangerous, albeit underrated hitters. The final week of the first half offered promise.

Alomar, Anderson get well

The Orioles attribute much of their offensive trouble to the absence of cleanup hitter Eric Davis, but they've been affected more by injuries to their two most complete offensive players, Roberto Alomar and Brady Anderson. The duo is on pace to equal last year's combined 38 stolen bases, but will not approach its 72 home runs. Anderson's slugging percentage is down almost 200 points; Alomar is on pace for 42 extra-base hits, down from last season's 69.

To their credit, neither player has allowed injuries to keep him out of the lineup. Anderson's right knee has replaced his sore ribs as his primary hurt, but he begins the second half further limited by a strained left calf muscle. Somehow able to beat his career .302 average, Alomar still feels a weak ankle and has protected a strained left shoulder for most of a month.

Play tough in early Sept.

No one is expecting the Yankees to go away. They possess the league's second-best record and have sliced 2 1/2 games from the Orioles' lead since June 4. From Sept. 4 to 14, the teams play each other eight times, including four at Camden Yards Sept. 11 to 14.

The Orioles receive no scheduling favors surrounding the showdown. They play three games at Florida and probably will play six more (pending two rescheduled rainouts) against the Cleveland Indians. If a Sept. 10 day off is sacrificed for a makeup, the Orioles will be in the midst of a season-ending, 34-day, 35-game stretch.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Milwaukee Brewers

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7: 35

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Brewers' Ben McDonald (7-6, 4.24) vs. O's Jimmy Key (12-4, 2.55)

Break to break

Three Orioles are among the major-league leaders in wins and saves since last year's All-Star break:

Wins

Roger Clemens .. .. .. 20

Pat Hentgen .. .. .. . 20

Scott Erickson .. .. . 19

Jimmy Key .. .. .. ... 19

Denny Neagle .. .. ... 19

Bobby Witt .. .. .. .. 19

Saves

Rod Beck .. .. .. . .. 47

Robb Nen .. .. .. .. . 42

Mark Wohlers .. .. ... 41

Todd Worrell .. .. ... 41

Trevor Hoffman .. .. . 40

Randy Myers .. .. .. . 40

Pub Date: 7/11/97

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