MIAMI -- The Orioles arrived in New York early this morning, counting bodies instead of wins.
With a telling four-game series against the Yankees beginning tonight, the Orioles find themselves at their most vulnerable. A wrung-out bullpen and a hobbled lineup have conspired to slow their offense to a crawl and to drive manager Davey Johnson to distraction.
"The last three or four days, I've felt like I wasn't managing. I was just being a head nurse on a ward taking care of the retired soldiers and trying not to inflict more damage on the troops," he said.
The Orioles retain the largest lead -- 6 1/2 games -- as well as the best record in the major leagues. They also carry an arm's length of nagging nicks and sprains that create a bedeviling conflict for the manager.
Johnson is torn. After leading the AL East since Opening Day, he hopes to keep his team healthy for October without giving away its first division title since 1983.
A pragmatic corner of the clubhouse believe escaping New York with the 6 1/2 -game lead intact would represent a significant step for a team that has lost five straight while trying to count healthy bodies.
Others, among them Mike Mussina, see a danger in adopting a philosophy of maintenance. "We can play .500 ball from here on out, win 100 games and be out in the first series. That's the last thing we want to happen," Mussina said.
Assistant general manager Kevin Malone insisted that any series with the Yankees is important because of the rivalry existing between the two.
While the Orioles are virtually assured at least a wild-card entry, failing to win the AL East would create tremors throughout an organization that believes a $55 million payroll worth more than second-best.
"It's important to win the division," said center fielder Brady Anderson, who dismisses talk of a wild-card berth being advantageous because of a first-round draw against the
underachieving Cleveland Indians. "You play 162 games to win, not to finish second. You play every game to win; you play the season to win. Injuries aren't an excuse."
However, the Orioles no longer play with swagger. A limp is more like it. They enter arguably the most telling series of the second half with Geronimo Berroa and Jerome Walton as their only healthy outfielders. Walton has played 11 games all season.
With their best base-stealing threats either on the disabled list or hobbling on the field, the Orioles have adopted a softball offense. After last night's 7-6 loss to the Florida Marlins, they were hitting .233 with 58 runs scored in their last 15 games. Of those 58 runs, 36 had scored on 20 home runs.
Johnson loves to maneuver personnel. His confidence in manipulating a roster gives him a clear advantage over the majority of his American League contemporaries, but the last several weeks have conspired to tie his hands.
Catchers Chris Hoiles and Lenny Webster are bothered by Achilles' injuries. Webster took a foul ball to the left knee last night, laying him out for several minutes. Johnson had hoped to start Hoiles, but scratched him to save him for tonight.
A week ago the club did not see Eric Davis as a pivotal part of its stretch drive. However, subsequent events have changed that.
Anderson missed his second start in three games last night. Jeffrey Hammonds is still bothered by recurring soreness in an Achilles' tendon.
The need for fresh legs is significant enough for the club to contact Davis this week while he attends his brother's funeral in Los Angeles. Davis notified the team on Tuesday that he plans to rejoin it in Cleveland next Monday. Meanwhile, Harold Baines requires a pinch runner every time he reaches base.
While the Orioles scream for help, the front office is comfortable leaving its Rochester and Bowie affiliates relatively untouched to preserve their postseason chances. Malone said yesterday that help could arrive "within the next five days."
Even when fresh faces arrive, they aren't really fresh. Johnson was shocked to discover that reliever Brian Williams arrived Monday having thrown 90 pitches in a Saturday start for Rochester.
Though present, Williams' pitch load left him virtually unusable until last night, when he struggled through a three-run sixth inning, allowing Florida to tie the score.
Meanwhile, Johnson was forced to hustle Shawn Boskie into a tie game Monday though Boskie hadn't pitched since coming off the disabled list. Tuesday, in another tie situation, Johnson reluctantly used Terry Mathews instead of Williams. Meanwhile, Esteban Yan and Nerio Rodriguez remain at Triple-A.
The bullpen ERA has risen from 2.67 to 2.93 over the five games prior to last night. It hasn't been higher since June 4. The current team ERA of 3.68 is its highest since July 25, when it stood at 3.72.
"Right now our 'pen is taxed out," Hoiles said. "The last couple weeks it's started to show. It's the time of year when you start to get tired. For them, it's an inning here, an inning there and it starts to add up. Those guys have carried us a lot this year. But a lot of them aren't 100 percent now not even close."
Arthur Rhodes has a tender right side. Mathews has yielded runs in eight of his last nine appearances.
Second baseman Roberto Alomar has played five innings since July 29, the product of a strained groin muscle that will almost certainly prevent him from playing in this weekend's series.
Pub Date: 9/04/97