Birds of Youth
The Orioles finally click with a younger, faster, lower-paid lineup
In the fifth inning of the Orioles' 1-0 win over the Red Sox last Friday, Baltimore third baseman Ryan Minor ranged far to his left to snare a roller hit by Boston's Mike Stanley. Too far, in fact: Minor cut off shortstop Mike Bordick, who had an easier play, and Stanley was safe at first when Minor's off-balance throw went wide of the bag. The play—and the game—meant little for the Orioles (77-78 through Sunday), who had long been eliminated from contention.
Still, Minor's rookie mistake was significant because it resulted from speed and range and youthful exuberance, all qualities lacking at Camden Yards in recent seasons. Baltimore's Opening Day lineup, with an average age of 33-3 years, was the oldest in baseball. Last Friday's lineup—which included younger replacements for injured veteran in-fielders Will Clark (35), Delino DeShields (30) and Cal Ripken Jr. (39)—continued a second-half youth infusion that had helped spark the Orioles to a 19-5 September record, a run that included a 13-game winning streak. Since July 9, when it hit 17 games under .500, Baltimore had gone 43-27. "We have a real positive to build on next year," says assistant G.M. Bruce Manno.
As a result of their free-agent spree last winter, the Orioles have veterans at all but one position signed to pricey contracts through at least 2000, but several young players have ensured that there will be competition for jobs next spring. Baltimore's turnaround coincided with the steadying of a bullpen that blew 20 save opportunities and had a 5-89 ERA before the All-Star break. Through Sunday the Orioles' pen-buoyed by the arrivals of righthanders Gabe Molina, 24, and Al Reyes, 28, and lefties Doug Johns, 31, and B.J. Ryan, 23, through trades or call-ups—had a 3.62 ERA after the break and had blown only five save opportunities.
With Ripken in and out of the lineup all year—he finally underwent season-ending back surgery last Thursday—the 25-year-old Minor had appeared in 40 games at third base through Sunday and made only one error there. Rookie Jerry Hairston Jr., 23, had been been flawless in 42 starts at second in place of DeShields. Neither has dazzled at the plate-Minor was hitting .183, Hairston .248—but they'd brought some flexibility to the lineup. "We added a little speed and have been able to steal bases and create runs," says manager Ray Miller, who, despite his club's surge, is likely to be out of a job after the season. "The first part of the year we couldn't do that."
Adds Manno, "We're not committing jobs to anybody, but certainly the performances of those kids have made us comfortable about giving them an opportunity next year."
Red Sox Rotation
Big Brother Lends a Hand
In the final phase of a long rehabilitation from rotator cuff surgery, Ramon Martinez has spent the last month with the Red Sox building up his arm and hoping to resume his career. Now it appears he will join his little brother Pedro, baseball's best pitcher, in Boston's postseason rotation. The righthanded Ramon, an All-Star with the Dodgers in 1990 and '91, got his first win in more than 15 months by limiting the visiting Orioles to four hits in seven innings last Saturday. The 4-1 victory ended a three-game Red Sox losing streak and reduced Boston's magic number to three in the wild-card race against the A's.
The Red Sox couldn't count on such a quick return when they signed the 31-year-old Ramon as a free agent in March, nine months after his surgery. His rehabilitation might have easily lasted through the 1999 season. Instead he made his debut on Sept. 2, giving up four runs, three of them earned, in three innings against the Royals and taking the loss. With the Red Sox in the race for the American League East title as well as the wild card at that point, manager Jimy Williams told Ramon he might not receive another opportunity this season.
Then, during a trip to Oakland the following week, Williams noticed Ramon working harder than ever in the bullpen. "That told me he was determined to be out there," says Williams, who was so impressed by Ramon's tenacity that he gave him another turn in the rotation. In his two most recent starts through Sunday, Ramon went 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA. He was due to make one more start before the playoffs.