Next week, in one National League city or another, the 63rd World Series begins and, contrary to what you might have heard lately, the Baltimore Orioles are going to show up for it. Las Vegas says that if you like the Orioles you deserve to win $8 for every $5 you put up. The experts are saying, "Baltimore just doesn't have the pitching to win a World Series," and when managers and players of nonparticipating teams are interviewed you can bet most of them will revert to form and say, "No way Baltimore can win it—no way."
But maybe you don't recall the criticism of April and the knocks that lasted until June—but only until June. "The Orioles," nearly everyone said back then in the spring, "don't have enough pitching to win a pennant." Yet here it is autumn and, as the dialogue goes around the racetracks, "Who win it?" "Baltimore win it." "How?" "Laughin'."
The Orioles enter the Series as solid underdogs because they do indeed appear to have a grave pitching problem, but a team simply cannot win a major league pennant by 10 games with bad pitching. It is just that Baltimore has strange pitching, a pitching staff that can function effectively only when it is used the way it has been used this season.
It is a fascinating phenomenon to observe. As you watch this Series you will see it happen before your very eyes, but even then maybe you won't believe it. You see, Baltimore has no Sandy Koufax or Juan Marichal, no Sam McDowell or Jim Kaat. What the Orioles do have is a marvelous bullpen that gets lots of work and works very well. When other teams send a starting pitcher to the mound in the first inning they are expecting or hoping that he will be around in the ninth. Not the Orioles.
Hank Bauer, the Baltimore manager, will sweat and grimace and swear in his dugout for five innings or so, but along about the sixth he will jump up and march to the mound. Halfway there he will make a gesture that only an experienced Oriole fan will understand. If he looks as though he is suffering from a severe stiff neck it means that he is calling, or even begging, for Stu Miller. If he shakes his knuckles at the ground that means he wants Eddie Fisher. When he imitates a softball pitcher delivering underhanded he is asking for Dick Hall. And he has other gestures for Moe Drabowsky, Gene Brabender or anyone else he happens to have out in the bullpen at the moment. In comes the relief pitcher, and the Orioles relax—now they are at full strength.
Only about once a week, on the average, has an Oriole starter gone all the way. Only once all season—in early June—was Bauer able to sit back and see his starters complete two games back to back. Since June 13 the Orioles have gotten only seven complete games from pitchers who will be available in the Series. To drive the point home just a little deeper, the Chicago White Sox have only two fewer shutouts to their credit than the Orioles have complete games. Neither Bauer nor the Baltimore management expected to follow this pattern when the season began, but it developed after a combination of injuries and inconsistencies had weakened the starting staff. Then the remarkable and regular effectiveness of the relievers justified the pattern born of necessity—and won the pennant.
Baltimore's season can be neatly divided into halves—the first half splendid and the second bewildering. The Orioles arrived at the All-Star break in July eight games ahead of second-place Detroit. For one half of a season they were a fine baseball team, capable of winning either offensively or defensively. But after they opened that big lead the hitters cooled off (notably Brooks Robinson, who was the big runs-batted-in leader during the early-season pennant drive), and in the second half the Orioles not only were not a fine team, they were not even one-two in the league. Standings for the second half of the season (from July 14 to Sept. 26) would look like this:
Even so, the Orioles actually increased their lead during the second half—the Tigers, who had been second, sagged badly—and only in early September did the margin dip below 10 games.
In mid-July the Orioles lost Steve Barber, generally regarded as their top starting pitcher, because of tendonitis. The absence of Barber forced the bullpen to work even harder (and it also cost Barber a chance to be a 20-game winner, because at the time he was put on the disabled list his record was 10-3). Barber returned to action last week, pitching five hitless innings (before giving way to the bullpen). Bauer hopes that he will be able to pitch in the Series.
If Barber is able to pitch effectively that would give the Orioles three good starters: Barber, Dave McNally (13-5) and Jim Palmer (15-9). If Barber is unable to pitch, Bauer will have to start Eddie Watt, a 24-year-old rookie with a 9-6 record, or Wally Bunker, the young sensation of two years back who is 10-6 but who has an earned run average of 4.43. Those won-lost records are good, but it is the bullpen that has made them good. Obviously, there is not a Sandy Koufax in the group.
For most of the season the Orioles won attention by their hitting: they lead the American League in team batting average, have the most home runs and have scored the most runs. Their hitting comes in explosive clumps and is able to destroy a game in the time it takes to wind your watch. The Orioles have won a lot of games in the very first inning; over the season they have scored 116 runs in their first time at bat as against 65 for their opposition. Repeatedly, they have won games in their last or next-to-last times at bat, too. That is genuine hitting.
In general, the Orioles are an impressive team. Third Baseman Brooks Robinson makes plays that other third basemen only dream about, and for years has been pulling pitchers out of trouble by gliding into the hole and stuffing a base hit into his glove. In recent weeks Brooks has shown signs of returning to his early-season hitting form. If the Orioles are to win the Series, Brooks will have to come through. His clutch hits score Frank Robinson, who has done everything possible for Baltimore this season. Frank has a chance to win the rare triple crown—batting average, home runs and runs batted in—and his constant needling has kept the Baltimore bench alive. When the two Robinsons, Boog Powell, Curt Blefary and Andy Etchebarren are hitting, they present an awesome striking force. Only the Atlanta Braves of the National League have produced more home runs this season (200 to 175), and homers are a lot easier to come by in Atlanta than they are in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium.
Many fans hoped that the Orioles would ultimately meet the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Series and possibly bring about a repetition of the 1960 Series, in which the Pirates and Yankees hit baseballs all over creation. Something similar would happen if the Orioles met the San Francisco Giants. But against the Los Angeles Dodgers Baltimore would have a harder time of it. Good pitching, says a baseball axiom, beats good hitting, and the Dodgers have good pitching. Too, the Orioles never played well in Dodger Stadium against the Angels. In their last 26 games in Chavez Ravine the Orioles were held to two runs no less than 13 times, and while Angel pitching is good it is certainly not as good as Dodger pitching. The Baltimore bullpen, loaded with slow-ball pitchers, would also have difficulty containing Dodger stealing speed (though if the Orioles scored early they would take much of the speed and bunting away from Los Angeles). The Dodgers, of course, have a remarkable record at home (53-28) but have had their troubles on the road (38-36). Baltimore has played roughly the same at home and on the road.
The American League has lost six of the last nine World Series as well as eight of 10 All-Star games. Because of the way the Orioles dominated the pennant race, the American League's prestige is now really on the line. Whoever the Orioles meet, they can win if they play the way they did the first half of the season. Certainly, if you bet your five on Baltimore hoping for eight back, you're riding very decent odds.