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Baseball
Tim Crothers
August 03, 1998
Baltimore Chop The suddenly red-hot Orioles bounced back into the wild-card race
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August 03, 1998

Baseball

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PITCHER TEAM

W-L

ERA

Greg Maddux, Braves

22-5

1.75

Andy Pettitte, Yankees

22-8

3.25

Pedro Martinez, Red Sox

21-7

2.37

Kevin Tapani, Cubs

21-9

4.18

Kevin Brown, Padres

20-6

2.65

Roger Clemens, Blue Jays

20-10

2.83

Tim Wakefield, Red Sox

20-11

4.01

Tom Glavine, Braves

19-7

3.00

Mike Hampton, Astros

19-8

3.16

Andy Ashby, Padres

19-11

3.35

Brad Radke, Twins

19-13

3.42

David Wells, Yankees

19-8

4.10

Source: Elias Sports Bureau

Baltimore Chop
The suddenly red-hot Orioles bounced back into the wild-card race

It was on Sunday, July 5, the last day of play before the All-Star break, that the Orioles' season hit rock bottom. With a 1-0 loss to the Yankees, Baltimore had dropped 11 of its last 12 games and fallen 15½ games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race. Three hours later the Orioles' team plane sat on the runway with mechanical troubles, forcing the players to take a four-hour bus ride back to Baltimore. Says manager Ray Miller, whose club was 38-50 at the break, "It was a fitting end to a nightmarish first half."

Miller spent the three days off at home in rural New Athens, Ohio, sitting on the porch clearing his head, his solitude broken only when he decided to watch the All-Star Game. He was struck by the unfamiliar smiles on the faces of his players—Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Cal Ripken Jr.—as they ignited the American League's 13-8 victory with some timely hits and daring baserunning at Coors Field. Before Baltimore's second-half opener, Miller met with his club and said, "We've had to swallow a lot of pride around here lately and haven't had much fun. So let's start playing aggressively, like our guys did at the All-Star Game, and have some fun for a change."

It wasn't exactly the Gipper speech, but the Orioles did win their first nine games after the break, the team's longest victory streak in five seasons. Through Sunday they were 14-3 in the second half, leaving them a game below .500 and within nine games of Boston in the wild-card chase. In those 17 games Baltimore batted .310 as a team and scored more than six runs a game, while the pitchers had a 3.43 ERA. "We always knew we had good players," says Palmeiro, who hit seven homers during that hot streak, "but in the first half we'd sit around wondering, What's going wrong? Now we're thinking, What else can go right?"

There are plenty of reasons for optimism. Lefthanded starter Jimmy Key, who missed much of the first half with an inflamed rotator cuff, is almost ready to return. The Orioles are in the midst of a stretch of 20 straight games against teams under .500, while the Red Sox embark this week on a perilous West Coast road trip. Baltimore is 5-1 against Boston this season and will face the Red Sox six more times, including the final four games of the season at Fenway Park. The Orioles also have recent history on their side, having crawled back from a five-game deficit in the wild-card standings in August '96 to reach the playoffs.

Baltimore rallied that season after general manager Pat Gillick tried unsuccessfully to get the O.K. from owner Peter Angelos to unload outfielder Bobby Bonilla and lefthander David Wells for prospects. Fearing a similar inclination to surrender this season, Ripken and ace Mike Mussina lobbied recently to keep this year's team together. Reliever Jesse Orosco spoke for many of his teammates when he said, "We're the ones who created this mess, let us try to clean it up."

Baltimore brass met on July 21 and decided not to give up, though Gillick admits, "We still have a huge mountain to climb." He is afraid that the Orioles' winning streak could be fool's gold, perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to an organization in dire need of an infusion of young talent. In recent seasons Baltimore has continually reloaded the roster with pricey free agents, while forsaking the farm system. Due to the second-half revival, baseball's oldest (average age on Opening Day: 34 years) and highest-paid team ($70.4 million payroll) might be missing a precious chance to get younger and less expensive before the July 31 trade deadline. Even some Orioles fans recognize the wisdom of longterm planning; one sign at Camden Yards last week read: IF YOU REBUILD, THEY WILL COME. JULY 31ST YARD SALE. DO THE RIGHT THING. Instead, Gillick is hedging his bets, willing to trade what he calls "peripheral players" to improve the team either this season or in the future, which explains why he dealt veteran Joe Carter to the Giants last Thursday for 23-year-old pitching prospect Darin Blood.

The odds on a Baltimore comeback depend upon how you do the math. No team in this century has been 15½ games out of a playoff berth and reached the postseason. Then again, the Orioles had cut 8½ games from that deficit in 16 days before losing two in a row to the Mariners last weekend. Miller, however, had to put Alomar on the 15-day disabled list last Saturday with a sprained right pinkie. "Most of the season we've been playing a game of Solitaire with 47 cards," Miller says. "It doesn't matter how many times you play that way, you'll never finish, especially with a bunch of your kings missing. If we ever have all of our cards, I still believe we've got a chance to finish this game."

White Sox-Giants Trade
Reevaluating a Dubious Deal

In these final days before the trade deadline, it's instructive to revisit last summer's most controversial transaction with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. Last July 31 the White Sox sent pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Danny Darwin and Roberto Hernandez to the Giants for six minor leaguers. Aftreward, Giants general manager Brian Sabean was lauded as a master thief. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was excoriated for giving up on the season with his team just 3½ games behind the Indians in the American League Central, which led him to respond, "A lot of people refuse to take a look at what we got."

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