Besides his team's inexperience, Dierker's main concern is trying to reestablish fireballer Billy Wagner as his closer. From April through July, Wagner was 7-3 with a 1.64 ERA and 19 saves. In August and September the second-year lefty was 0-5 with an 7.71 ERA and one save through Sunday.
Florida's chances of advancing depend on the production of its number 3 and 4 hitters, Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla, respectively, in an offense that ranked seventh in the league in runs. Sheffield, who was batting .249 with 20 home runs and 64 RBIs at week's end—compared with .314, 42 and 120 last year—has been bothered by thumb, hamstring and, most recently, back injuries. Though he has never been to the postseason, Sheffield says, "I'm focused the most when there's pressure. If we get to the [playoffs] and I'm playing well, I can carry us the rest of the way."
He might want to check with Bonilla, whose 79 postseason at bats with the Pirates and the Orioles have left him with a .190 average and low expectations. "I've always said it's usually not your big guns that do something in the playoffs," Bonilla says. "Pitchers are never going to give you anything you can sink your teeth into. They're not going to let [the middle of the order] beat them. It's usually guys like [Atlanta's light-hitting Mark] Lemke, who's a wonderful player but not someone you'd expect to carry a team, to come up big in the playoffs."
The American League has no obvious favorite. Though Baltimore is virtually assured of joining the '27 Yankees and the '84 Detroit Tigers as the only American League teams to lead wire-to-wire, the Orioles have lost some sheen with a 10-12 September. "We're the team to beat by title," Yankees manager Joe Torre says. "But Baltimore is still the team to beat because they have the most wins."
In the regular season the Orioles were 7-4 against Seattle, their probable Division Series opponent, and dealt 18-game winner Randy Johnson two of his four losses. But Baltimore has struggled enough at the plate recently to give manager Davey Johnson concern about facing Seattle's lefthanded starters Johnson, Jeff Fassero (15-9, 3.67 ERA through Sunday) and Jamie Moyer (17-4, 3.68). The Orioles have hit 17 points lower against lefthanders than righthanders this season. "My priority is getting our righthanded hitters straightened out," Davey Johnson says. "Jerome Walton, Jeffrey Hammonds, Eric Davis and Cal Ripken have all been banged up."
In addition, switch-hitting second baseman Roberto Alomar's left shoulder hurts so badly that he hasn't batted righthanded since June. Much of the responsibility against Seattle's lefthanders falls to Davis, who returned this month from surgery and chemotherapy for colon cancer; Geronimo Berroa, a .364 hitter against lefties in '97; and Ripken, who at week's end was suffering through a 12-for-76 slump.
Ripken admitted last week he has been bothered by a sore back that was so painful he nearly walked off the field in an August game against the Oakland Athletics. But when a Baltimore Sun columnist suggested that Ripken junk his 2,467-game playing streak to rest for the playoffs, Ripken asked for airtime on the Orioles' radio and cable stations to say the idea was ludicrous. Then in a blowout against the Milwaukee Brewers last week, Johnson asked Ripken if he would prefer to skip his ninth-inning at bat in favor of a pinch hitter. "No," replied Ripken. "I need the at bat to work on my timing."
When Johnson suggested a pinch runner if he reached base, Ripken rejected that offer, too. "He has the most mental strength of anybody I've been around," Johnson says. "He doesn't take pain pills or anti-inflammatory medicine for his back. He treats it up here," he says, tapping his head.
The Orioles have a huge advantage over Seattle if their series is decided by the bullpens. The Mariners offense, the most prolific in baseball (5.7 runs per game average), might not be enough to overcome the club's erratic bullpen. Even if manager Lou Piniella can hang on to a lead with setup men Paul Spoljaric, Bobby Ayala and Mike Timlin, he will probably try to close games with Heathcliff Slocumb (0-4, 4.81 ERA with Seattle). After erstwhile closer Norm Charlton blew his 10th save last week in Texas—and the club's 26th blown save of the season—Piniella said, "I've lost for the last time with Norm."
Both Cleveland and New York, the other probable Division Series opponents, are much more confident when they put a game into the hands of their bullpens. Getting there with a lead may be difficult, though. Indians manager Mike Hargrove will probably use three starters—righthanders Charles Nagy, Orel Hershiser and rookie Jaret Wright, who had a combined ERA of 4.28. "If we get six strong innings, it will give us a chance, and we'll be O.K.," says shortstop Omar Vizquel. "Pitching is everything. If our starters give up two or three runs in the first or second inning, it puts too much pressure on the offense."