Too soon to panic, but signs aren't good

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The three straight losses to Detroit before the All-Star break were irritating, but after a restful layoff, the Orioles figured to snap out of it.

Now what's their excuse?

Three defensive mistakes in the first three innings, no hits for the first 6 1/3 , a discouraging 3-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

We know, we know -- it was only one game, only the second-half opener, for goodness sake.

But the Orioles' lead over the Yankees is again down to 5 1/2 games, and after Hideki Irabu's electrifying debut Thursday night, it seems even smaller.

Losing streaks are inevitable, even for championship clubs. But for the first time, the Orioles are playing poorly. For the first time, there is legitimate cause for concern.

Their four straight home losses to Toronto were one thing -- the Blue Jays' pitching was superior. But these past four losses are not so easily explained.

The first featured two miscast pitchers -- Rule 5 draft pick Mike Johnson, who should not have started, and Alan Mills, who still might be injured.

The second came courtesy of a wild pitch on an intentional walk by Terry Mathews. And the third was a three-error, 14-run disaster.

Then came last night.

The throwing errors by Jimmy Key and Lenny Webster.

The misplayed flyball by Geronimo Berroa.

And, oh yes, the inability to hit Ben McDonald.

Of all the nightmares -- six innings of no-hit ball from everyone's favorite Scott Boras client, a home run by Jack Voigt, a save by Doug Jones.

Who's the next Brewers hero, Jeff Huson?

Manager Davey Johnson blamed the offense more than the defense, but frankly, didn't seem too troubled by either.

No, it's not time to panic, not with Scott Erickson pitching tonight and Mike Mussina tomorrow.

But the signs aren't good.

The Orioles are 10-12 since sweeping Atlanta. And after this 10-game homestand, they play 14 of their next 17 on the road.

They need another starting pitcher. They need a left-handed hitter. And they need Chris Hoiles to get healthy.

Indeed, if not for three gift wins over hapless Philadelphia, they might be looking at a true crisis.

The Orioles lost their last two games in Detroit despite hitting seven homers. They lost last night despite allowing only three runs.

Instead of finding ways to win, they're now finding ways to lose.

You know the cliche -- they aren't as good as they looked earlier, and they aren't as bad as they look right now. And it's probably silly to worry, considering they've got the safety net of a wild card.

Heck, the Orioles might be better off finishing second, so they can again open a Division Series at home against Cleveland instead of on the road against Seattle.

But the goal is a division title.

And, in their present state, the Orioles might not hold off the Yankees.

The roster includes six potentially replaceable parts -- Johnson, Mills and Shawn Boskie; Pete Incaviglia, Tim Laker and even Tony Tarasco.

How many will still be with the club after July 31?

That's the trade deadline, and general manager Pat Gillick figures to make at least one more deal before then.

The Yankees got better by adding Irabu, and they still might trade for a second baseman and bullpen help.

The Cleveland Indians are the leading candidates to land Curt Schilling, perhaps for Bartolo Colon, Brian Giles and a third prospect.

And the Seattle Mariners are almost certain to try to acquire another starting pitcher, possibly McDonald.

The Orioles?

Like every other contender, they're willing to trade prospects, knowing they can only protect 15 players in the first round of the expansion draft.

They're going to do something.

One club official said yesterday that the need for another starting pitcher is not yet urgent. Boskie figures to get three more starts before July 31. And Rocky Coppinger still could return, though no one is counting on it.

Rick Krivda? He should have been here already, should have gotten his chance. But the Orioles forced it with Johnson, rather than add another pitcher they would have risked losing if they returned him to the minors.

Thus, Krivda is in an impossible position -- too good to promote, yet not good enough.

Maybe they'll get McDonald. Maybe they'll get Ken Hill from Texas. Maybe they'll get Pedro Martinez or Carlos Perez from Montreal.

Those live arms in the farm system -- Julio Moreno, Sidney Ponson, Nerio Rodriguez, Alvie Shepherd -- the Orioles won't be able to protect all of them.

Mike Johnson is in the same category. The team has carried him for 3 1/2 months. But why continue if he's going to be exposed in the draft?

The idea of stockpiling young arms is commendable. But this is an older, established club that might not get this close to the World Series again.

The Orioles made it this far.

They can't blow it now.

Pub Date: 7/12/97

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