The Minnesota Twins had a 5-1 lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the fifth inning last Saturday at Camden Yards, and they were threatening to score more. It was a logical time for Orioles manager Dave Johnson to bring in his long reliever, rookie Jimmy Myers. Instead, he called on veteran Roger McDowell, who is usually the late-inning setup man when Baltimore is ahead. Johnson's message to his team was clear: Hold the Twins here, and we can still come back to win. After giving up a run-scoring hit, McDowell pitched 2⅔ shutout innings. Then two other relievers held Minnesota scoreless as the Orioles battled back to eventually tie the score in the eighth and win it 7-6 on centerfielder Brady Anderson's home run in the ninth.
After two weeks of the 1996 season, during which Baltimore ran up the best record in baseball (9-2 through Sunday), Johnson's club served notice on the rest of the American "League". The Birds have the most balanced team in the league.
Baltimore's lineup, 1 through 9, has no easy outs, has power throughout and is matched only by the Cleveland Indians'. And the Orioles defense is simply unmatched. They have the league's top righthander, Mike Mussina, who, following his two-hit masterpiece in a 3-2 win over the Twins last Friday night, was 3-0 this season and had allowed just five earned runs in his last 50 innings (a 0.90 ERA). Their bullpen is deep, and they have speed on the bases and lots of baseball savvy. On top of all that, after a nightmare 71-73 season under rookie manager Phil Regan, there's a new attitude.
"The difference is a calm manager and a talented club," says Anderson, who had three home runs and a .317 average at week's end. "We're not going crazy that we're 9-2. And when we go through rough times, like all teams do, we'll do it calmly. When we were behind 6-1 on Saturday, you would have thought we were ahead 6-1."
Credit Johnson, the new manager who played second base on the great Baltimore teams of the late '60s, for this psychological balance and for instilling a confidence that this team has not had in years. His use of McDowell last Saturday was one example of the faith he has in his players. Here's another: Johnson doesn't have pitchers constantly warming up in the bullpen—in the first 11 games, he never had two relievers throwing at the same time—a boost to the Baltimore pitcher on the mound. Regan, a former big league reliever and pitching, coach, sometimes would have two guys warming up as former Orioles closer Doug Jones entered the game. One more example: Johnson gives his hitters the green light on 2-and-0 and 3-and-l pitches. Regan was known to give the take sign even after Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield fell behind 2 and 0 in the count and was sure to be throwing a meaty fastball.
To the surprise of no one in baseball, Baltimore is much improved as a result of running up its payroll to $49.3 million—second in the majors to the New York Yankees' $52.9 million—with the off-season signing of free agents McDowell, second baseman Roberto Alomar, closer Randy Myers and third baseman B.J. Surhoff. The Orioles also traded for lefthander Kent Mercker and outfielder Tony Tarasco.
Alomar was hitting .316 at week's end and playing brilliantly, as advertised, in the field. Surhoff, a career .197 hitter in April, was batting .375 with three homers. And through his first 11 games at third base this year, Surhoff had not committed an error, though he did not spend a single inning at the hot corner last year with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The bullpen, anchored by McDowell and Myers, allowed one earned run in its first 28⅔ innings, with Myers needing only 51 pitches to emerge with four saves in his first four opportunities. A lefthander who used to throw nothing but heat, Myers now throws more breaking balls and changeups. "And he still has a presence that a closer has to have," says his former manager, Jim Riggleman of the Chicago Cubs.
But what has made Baltimore the complete package early this season has been the play of Orioles mainstays—such as Anderson, Mussina, leftfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, reliever Jesse Orosco, first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. Last Saturday was the first time Anderson, an eight-year veteran, had ever ended a big league game with a home run. "Last time I did that, I was five: My uncle hung a slider, and I hit it over my grandmother's head," he said. "My father stalked off the field in disgust." And if Hammonds, who had a .316 average and two homers through Sunday, can stay healthy, he should be the best number-9 hitter in the game. "When you look at how good our lineup is, how can I get mad about hitting ninth?" says Hammonds, 25, who played in only 158 major league games the past three years as he battled neck and knee injuries. On April 10, in a 2-2 game with the Indians, he led off the 10th with a double and scored the winning run moments later, as Baltimore swept a two-game series from the Indians, who beat them 10 out of 12 times last year.
In a game last week Ripken looked to his left and saw Alomar, looked to his right and saw Surhoff and then thought to himself, The opposing team will screw up before we screw up. "That's the first time I've felt that way," he told Orioles broadcaster and former teammate Mike Flanagan, "since '83."