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O's set to pick off steals title


Their hopes of reaching the playoffs dashed long ago, the Orioles find themselves in a different race.

The Orioles lead the American League in stolen bases with 123. Kansas City trails them by three.

If the Orioles hold off the Royals, it would mark the first time they have led the league in steals since 1973. They also did it in 1963.

Manager Mike Hargrove apparently wasn't aware of his club's stature among thieves until informed by reporters. "Heck, we need to pick up the pace then," he quipped.

The 123 steals are the fourth-highest total in franchise history. The Orioles racked up 150 in 1976, 146 in 1973 and 145 in 1974.

Delino DeShields, expected to be named Most Valuable Oriole, is 36-for-46. Only two players, Kansas City's Johnny Damon (45) and Cleveland's Roberto Alomar (38) have more than him in the league.

Only two other Orioles are in double figures: Brady Anderson with 16 and Luis Matos with 13. But Jerry Hairston (eight), Mark Lewis (seven) and Chris Richard (six) are drawing close.

Trades, minor league call-ups and the elimination of the leg injury that hampered DeShields last season have changed the O's reputation as a station-to-station team.

"I've said all along that the moves we made have given us better team speed," Hargrove said.

The Orioles also lead the league in having runners thrown out. The number stands at 65, 10 more than Seattle.

"It doesn't make any difference if you lead the league in stolen bases if you also lead the league in caught-stealing. That's kind of a wash, so we want to do it intelligently," Hargrove said.

Outfield tinkering

Last night's lineup didn't include Matos, who was 10-for-45 (.222) in 17 games since returning to the lineup after bruising his left shoulder on Aug. 29. Eugene Kingsale started in center field, with Anderson again in right while Albert Belle was DH.

Hargrove continues to evaluate Kingsale, who could compete for the starting center-field job next spring. He sees a different player from the one he observed last September as Cleveland's manager.

"I saw someone who looked frail. It really looked like if a strong wind came up it would blow him over," Hargrove said. "I've seen the total opposite this season, especially after he came back here and we activated him. He's bigger, stronger. I think he's more sure of himself. I think he's more confident in his abilities to be able to play at this level. "

Pitching plans

Jose Mercedes, who will start in the season finale on Sunday against the Yankees and is eligible for arbitration, is expected to remain a starter next spring after going 10-3 in the second half. Though reluctant to make projections this early, Hargrove said it's possible the rotation could be completed with pitchers currently on the 25-man roster.

"I think so, though there are some guys in our minor leagues who we want to look at also. But yes, I could see that," he said.

"The bullpen's a different story. We have some spots out there we're not sure about. Is Alan Mills going to come back 100 percent and be ready for spring training? We're all projecting that he will be, but that remains to be seen."

Hargrove doesn't expect the same massive turnover as what the bullpen experienced this spring, when closer Mike Timlin was the only reliever who began the 1999 season with the Orioles.

Around the horn

Reliever Buddy Groom made another appearance in the ninth inning, leaving him two short of 70 with three games remaining. ... The Orioles have hired Ed Kenney as a special assistant to Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, effective Oct. 1. Kenney worked in the Red Sox organization for 17 years.

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