Orioles fans are understandably excited about the sudden change of fortune at Camden Yards, and rightfully so. The Orioles finally are showing why they were a preseason pick to reach the playoffs for the third straight year -- and the schedule favors them for the next few weeks.
Trouble is, it's not really about the Orioles.
The wild-card race belongs to the Boston Red Sox, who ultimately will be the ones to decide whether the Orioles make history by coming back from a 15 1/2 -game deficit to reach the postseason.
Is it possible?
It is now.
The Orioles have cut their midseason deficit by about half and need to gain only two or three games over the next month to put real pressure on. The Red Sox have a long and storied history of wilting under it.
They dropped four straight games in Baltimore to open the second half and have played .500 ball since then, allowing the Orioles to make steady progress on their long march back into contention. There are six head-to-head meetings left on the schedule, four of them in what could be a tense season-ending series at Fenway Park.
If the Red Sox let it come to that, they will be positioned perfectly for another disastrous ending. Some might call it their destiny.
That's why it's extremely important for general manager Dan Duquette to pull off a deal for another front-line starting pitcher by next weekend's deadline for trades without waivers.
The Red Sox have gotten everything they expected from $75 million ace Pedro Martinez and have gotten more than they could have expected from veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield. But the wild-card berth could be lost at the back of the rotation, where John Wasdin and promising Jin Ho Cho, who was demoted to Double-A Trenton on Friday, have not pitched impressively.
The Orioles could use some help, too, but they still are holding out hope that Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki will make an impact down the stretch. If either rebounds to pitch well, that would have the same weight as a high-profile pitching trade.
Deadline may be dud
The July 31 waiver deadline may turn out to be a huge anticlimax. The surprising Philadelphia Phillies are the latest team to hint that they may not unload any veteran pitchers before the deadline.
"We have to think a little bit harder about it," said general manager Ed Wade. "I don't want these guys to feel like we're folding the tent up on 1998, especially the way they've played day in and day out. But that's only one factor in the equation. There are a lot of factors."
Reliever Mark Leiter and starter Mark Portugal have been prominent in trade rumors involving the club, but there is growing sentiment in the clubhouse and front office to keep the pitching staff intact.
"I don't see why we would deal [Portugal]," Phillies ace Curt Schilling said. "I mean, is Albert Belle coming in here, someone like that? There wouldn't be another reason why you would do it."
There were some arched eyebrows when the Arizona Diamondbacks signed veteran shortstop Jay Bell to a five-year, $34 million contract last November and added fuel to baseball's free-agent salary explosion.
The Bell contract was viewed in ownership circles as an example of the effect that overzealous and inexperienced ownership can have on the rate of payroll growth throughout the industry.
Now, little more than halfway through the first season of that five-year deal, the club is preparing to move Bell to second base and replace him at shortstop with promising prospect Danny Klassen.
"We talked a little about second base," Bell said after a lengthy midweek meeting with manager Buck Showalter. "I'm going to do what's best for this club."
Bell has been struggling defen- sively and ranks among the league leaders in strikeouts. He has been hobbled by a sore knee that figures to bother him the rest of the season, but still is one of the sport's premier offensive middle infielders.
It seems extremely likely now that Chicago White Sox star Robin Ventura will be traded during the next week. The club apparently has made no recent contract overtures to the veteran third baseman, and general manager Ron Schueler says he is shopping for a big deal.
"Right now we're still in the stages of investigating [the trade market]," Schueler said. "There are a lot of pluses to Robin. He's quiet, but a good leader. He's a great defensive player. It would be a tremendous loss. That's what I have to weigh. The big thing is what I can get for him. We're not just going to give him away."
Ventura certainly thinks it's going to happen.
"Everything's still up in the air," he said. "There's no 'for sure.' I've never been traded before, but guys say they get a feeling right before it's going to happen. That's the feeling I get."
Arizona pitcher Willie Blair has been prominent in midseason trade talk, but he doesn't figure to be a particularly hot commodity during the final week before the waiver deadline.
Blair, apparently the most ill-advised of the Diamondbacks' expensive off-season acquisitions, is -- at 4-14 -- the losingest pitcher in the majors and leads the National League with 26 home runs allowed. But he continues to say that he's pitching much better than his statistics might indicate.
"I thought I had probably as good a stuff as I've had all year," Blair said after giving up home runs to the San Diego Padres' Wally Joyner and Greg Vaughn in a 9-3 loss Wednesday.
That should be warning to anyone interested in acquiring him for the stretch drive.
Too much, too soon
Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox finally lost patience with young star Andruw Jones on Tuesday night, pulling him out of a game in the middle of an inning for failing to hustle after a ball, then dressing him down in the dugout tunnel.
"Anybody who doesn't respect the game enough to give 100 percent on every play needs somebody to talk to him," Cox said. "Unfortunately, I've talked to him a lot. He's got to grow up, it's as simple as that. No one is bigger than the game. I didn't act that way when I was 21, and neither did Willie Mays or Hank Aaron."
Jones is one of the most promising young players in the game, but he may have landed in the majors too fast to get a good emotional footing. He was a postseason star at 19 and now has become a behavioral problem at 21. He has been fined by Cox several times this year, but it apparently has not had the desired disciplinary effect.
"He's about to go broke, I've taken so much from him," Cox said. "It's a joke. I doubt he's going to make any money the rest of this season."
Defense be not proud
The Rangers were 12 games over .500 after the first two months of the season but have not played .500 ball since then, even though the club's ERA and combined batting average have not varied enough to account for a dramatic change of fortune.
The club committed only 28 errors in the first 56 games and went 34-22. The Rangers committed 46 in their next 45 games and went 22-23.
"I think that's the area where we have the potential to show the greatest improvement," said manager Johnny Oates. "We're not going to score more runs and we're not going to pitch much better. But we can catch the ball better and make the little plays. We've done it before and we'll do it again."
Piazza: Escape from N.Y.?
The Mets still have made no real attempt to sign catcher Mike Piazza to a long-term contract, enhancing the possibility that he will be available in the free-agent market this November.
Piazza may not even want to return to the Mets next year. Since the early excitement over his arrival subsided, the reception has been lukewarm and he has been booed lately for his so-so run-production numbers.
Speculation is hot in Southern California that he will test the deep pockets of Disney and sign with the Angels over the off-season, but there figures to be plenty of teams interested -- perhaps even the Orioles, who may have room on baseball's biggest payroll by then.
The $100 million price tag will be daunting, but someone is going to pay it.
O's have it easier
Between tomorrow and Sept. 9, the Orioles play only two series against teams with a winning record, while the Red Sox, whom the Orioles are chasing for the AL wild card, face five. Boston also has a 12-game, four-city trip starting this week. A look, with opponents' records through Friday:
Orioles ................... Red Sox
at Det. (43-58)........... at Oak. (46-55)
at K.C. (45-56)........... at Ana. (55-46)
Det. (43-58) at........... Sea. (46-56)
at Min. (46-55)........... at Tex. (56-46)
at T.Bay (38-62).......... K.C. (45-56)
at Cle. (58-44)........... Min. (46-55)
Min. (46-55).............. Tex. (56-46)
T. Bay (38-62)............ at K.C. (45-56)
Cle. (58-44).............. at Min. (46-55)
at CWS (44-58)............ Oak. (46-55)
xTC K.C. (45-56).............. Ana. (55-46)
CWS (44-58)............... Sea. (46-56)
at Sea. (46-56)........... at Tor. (52-52)
at Oak. (46-55)........... N.Y.Y. (72-25)
Pub Date: 7/26/98