BIRDS BUG OFF TOWARD A TITLE

The Baltimore Orioles have run up a 13-game win streak—and all but run away from the rest of the American League East—using a speedy new offense and a pitcher who beetles opposing batters
September 02, 1973

The last time an American League team won 13 games in a row was 1961, back in the days when Owners Dan Topping and Del Webb would sit in their box on the first-base side of Yankee Stadium and dial M for Maris and Mantle. The last National League winning streak of equal proportions occurred in 1965 when the Dodgers received their best combined season from Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and ran off 13 straight in a September drive. Last Sunday evening another team, the Baltimore Orioles of 1973, defeated the Kansas City Royals 10-1 to match the streaks of those two colorful and excellent predecessors. In the process the Orioles had pulled apart the race in the American League East, a division that for most of the year had been as tight as a clenched fist.

Prior to the streak Baltimore's last memorable moment was its loss to the Pirates in the 1971 World Series. That was only two years ago, but surprisingly few of the current Orioles were involved. Oh, Brooks Robinson is still at third, stuffing would-be doubles into his glove, and Shortstop Mark Belanger continues to range as far west as Charles Street to pick up anything that rolls. Jim Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar continue to pitch with excellence, and the Orioles have never stopped making jokes about Catcher Andy Etchebarren's looks: "If the All-Ugly Team had co-captains, Etchebarren would be both." But in the 22 months since Baltimore lost to the Pirates, new talents, faces and styles have changed the team. Only 12 of the 25 players eligible for that Series remain.

The new Orioles are like sandpipers on a beach, going from here to there on feet that apparently never touch the ground. Instead of waiting for a home run they scoot into scoring position on a steal or a bunt or a hit-and-run. Baltimore already has scored more runs, stolen more bases, produced more RBIs, triples and sacrifice flies than it did in all of 1972. Four times during their 13-game winning streak the Orioles scored the deciding run on something other than a base hit. Thirty times they have come from behind as late as the seventh inning to win.

"We're hitting as well as doing the other things, too," says Manager Earl Weaver. "After the first month and a half of the season it didn't look like we were ever going to hit, but since then we have hit as well as at any time since I have managed here." On Memorial Day the Orioles had a team average of .229, next to last in the majors. Over the past 11 weeks their average has spurted to .259, better than the one compiled by the Series-winning Orioles of 1970.

While their streak made them clear favorites to win the East, there remains another formidable object to overcome before the Orioles can claim the title. They will spend the remainder of the season playing against eastern teams and they have losing records against each of their closest pursuers: Boston (5-7), Detroit (5-7) and New York (5-6). Still, none of the three seems capable of mounting a drive powerful enough to overtake an Oriole team that has pitching, speed and the best all-round defense Baltimore has ever seen.

For months after the 1972 season ended, Oriole fans from Towson to Pikesville sat over their National Bo's and dwelt on their team's unexpected failure to win a fourth-straight pennant. It was thoughts of the Baltimore offense that most often drove them to drink. After averaging 767 runs in their pennant years, the Orioles produced only 519 in 1972 as rally after rally died on warning tracks throughout the American League. There was an obvious need for a new attack, and Weaver promptly found one called speed.

In 1971 Baltimore had won with only four men stealing 10 or more bases. By the time this season concludes, the Orioles may have as many as eight base stealers in double figures, a total previously unattained in the big leagues. Unlike the majority of stealing teams, the Orioles have no one person accounting for a high percentage of the 104 stolen bases. Outfielders Don Baylor and Paul Blair lead with 17 each and rookie Al Bumbry has 15. Rich Coggins, who is just another number in Weaver's five-man platoon of outfielders, even though he is hitting .304, has swiped 13. And somehow the speed begets speed. An example of that occurred last week in a game against the Twins. Baltimore fell behind 3-0 in the first inning but scored three times in the bottom of the inning. The tying run crossed the plate when 250-pound Boog Powell noticed a rookie Minnesota pitcher was winding up with the bases loaded and two out. Boog scored all the way from first base on a single to left. Baltimore went ahead in the fifth by pushing across a run on a double play. During the game there were five outstanding defensive plays by five different Orioles.

The four scratch runs and good fielding were all Mike Cuellar needed for a 4-3 victory. After his shaky first inning he combined with Reliever Bob Reynolds to shut the Twins out for the rest of the game, making his record 12-12. That represents a fine recovery for Cuellar, who lost five of his first six decisions this year but is now on a four-game win streak. The Oriole pitcher on the hottest streak is righthander Jim Palmer, who is moving toward his fourth consecutive 20-win season. He is 27 years old, the age when most pitchers are just gaining full command of their talents. Palmer, who came to the majors at 19, already has been in command of his for a long time. Of pitchers with five or more years as starters, he has the best winning percentage (.709). Since 1969 he has rolled up 95 wins against 39 losses. "Jim Palmer is an unreal athlete," says Pete Richert, a former teammate now pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers. "He was All-Arizona in high school football, basketball and baseball. The first time he ever played golf he shot in the 80s."

Not surprisingly, super athlete Palmer also is an accomplished hitter. Despite the designated hitter rule, he is perhaps the only pitcher who still takes batting practice. "When the designated hitter rule first came in I was very outspoken against it because I believe myself to be a pretty good hitter," Palmer says. "I figured that was one advantage our team had over the others when I was pitching. I'm not so outspoken about the rule now because I have seen what a DH like our Tommy Davis can do for a club." Davis is hitting .304 with 73 RBIs.

A short time ago Palmer obtained a sterling silver beetle wearing earphones, and it has become his lucky charm. Since he got the Watergate bug Palmer has won 10 games in a row.

Of course, all those wins require more than mere good luck. "Jim never throws the ball down the middle," says Brooks Robinson. "He just goes inside and outside. And he works on the fine points of his game so much that I think he is the best fielding pitcher in the American League."

When they obtained power-hitter Earl Williams from Atlanta last winter it looked as though the Orioles might continue to rely on their old strategy of standing around and waiting for the home run. Then Weaver decided that the Orioles could feed young players into the lineup and go for speed. "That doesn't mean we start bunting in the first inning, try to score a run and play it safe from there," Weaver says. "We're just trying to get the most out of what we have."

Baylor, a 6'1", 200-pound speedster who has hit .466 since the middle of July, and Bumbry, a mite of a man who is averaging .310 and may well be the fastest player in the American League, have kept a cloud of dust hanging over American League parks with their base running. Outfielder Merv Rettenmund, dormant last season after an excellent .318 two years ago, is hitting again and so is Second Baseman Bobby Grich. The club's top batter in 1972, Grich has been at the bottom of the league with an average in the .220s for much of this season, but over the last three weeks he has looked more like the young Grich of old, raising his average 10 percentage points.

Although Baltimore has been as low as fourth at various times, opposing players always felt the Orioles were lying in the weeds, that even when they were down they were still the team being chased. Should they win the American League pennant, it would mark the fifth time in eight seasons the Orioles have done so—and only Yankees, Giants and Dodgers have ever gone five for eight. The sandpipers may be running their way right into history.

FOUR PHOTOSRich Coggins, Al Bumbry, Mark Belanger and Merv Rettenmund are among the Oriole runners who have beaten the base paths for 104 steals.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)