Birds of a Feather
After the Orioles beat the Blue Jays 7-1 on Sunday to regain a percentage-points lead in the American League East and the best record in the majors, Baltimore coach Davey Lopes, a veteran of numerous pennant races, said winning two out of three over the Jays was "psychologically important. If they had kicked our butts, they might be thinking, Hey, these guys can't beat us. But any observant person now knows that what's happening here in Baltimore isn't just a bunch of hoopla about the new stadium. This team isn't to be taken for granted."
Toronto now realizes that. One year after losing 95 games, the Orioles are 1992's comeback story, a team that has emerged as a serious contender against a Blue Jay club that Toronto third baseman Kelly Gruber said this spring would win its division by 15 games. Indeed, the inevitable comparisons between the Orioles and last season's turnaround Twins are now being heard. "They remind me of Minnesota last year: defense, young pitching and offense," says Jay reliever Duane Ward.
The Baltimore defense features the league's most acrobatic outfield, which repeatedly wowed the three sellout crowds last weekend at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In the fifth inning of Baltimore's 1-0 win in the series opener on Friday night, 6'1" rightfielder David Segui reached over the seven-foot-high rightfield fence to take a two-run homer away from Candy Maldonado. That catch was nothing compared with perhaps the best outfield play of the season, made an inning later by 6-foot centerfielder Mike Devereaux. After a long run Devereaux, who once held the Wyoming state high school high jump record, at 6'8", leaped well above the fence in left centerfield to take away a three-run homer from Joe Carter. "I still can't believe he caught that ball," said Lopes on Sunday. But pitcher Mike Flanagan wasn't as surprised. "Devereaux and [Brady] Anderson practice those," he said. "I've never seen outfielders do that. I don't know what that says about our pitching staff, though."
On Saturday night Anderson leaped above the leftfield barrier to take a homer away from Roberto Alomar. His catch couldn't prevent a 4-3 loss, however, nor could his 10th home run—giving him as many homers in 216 at bats this year as he had in 1,081 at bats coming into the season.
As for the pitching, Rick Sutcliffe, 35, set the tone for the series on Friday night, scowling the whole time as he allowed only four hits in eight innings. On days he pitches, he speaks to no one and no one speaks to him. "I'm a borderline jerk on days I pitch," he says. "My little girl and my wife do things to make sure I'm mad when I go to the park. Today I got ice water thrown on me in the shower. On days I pitch, my mind's totally on the game. I wasn't like that until I got traded to Cleveland [from the Dodgers in 1981]. Don Drysdale said the Dodgers scored runs for him because they knew the days he pitched were special. He had a presence. He told me when I went to Cleveland how important that would be when we were out of the race. I wanted guys to play hard when I pitched. I was mean. Now I'm quieter."
"Hey, erase the 'borderline' before jerk," says his manager, John Oates. "On days he pitches, he walks around like he wants to punch everyone he sees. He doesn't speak to me when I go to the mound. The hardest part of the job for me is to go to that mound and take him out—to look at that face. He's not too fun to be around on the days he pitches. And he's not too much fun to be around the day after if he pitches poorly." Those days have been infrequent this year; Sutcliffe improved his record to 8-4 with Friday night's win.
One reason that the Orioles signed Sutcliffe was to have him help teach Ben McDonald (7-3) and Mike Mussina (7-1) how to win. His influence has been obvious. After Mussina shut down the Jays on Sunday, allowing one run in 7⅖ innings, Baltimore's record stood at 33-21, matching the O's victory total at the 1991 All-Star break. The win also marked the first time since 1979 that the Orioles have had the best record in baseball after June 1. And it was the 38th consecutive day that the Jays and Orioles have been separated by one game or less this season.
Check back in September. They might still be that close.
The New Tommy John
Mariners rookie lefthander Dave Fleming, who led the University of Georgia to the College World Series championship in Omaha two years ago, is now Seattle's best pitcher. The Mariners may be last in the American League in pitching (ERA), but don't blame that on Fleming.
Through Sunday he was 8-1 with a 3.17 ERA. In the American League only Boston's Roger Clemens (9-3) had more wins, and no pitcher in the majors had a greater percentage of his team's victories than Fleming (36.4%). Fleming's lone defeat came in his first start, a 9-1 loss to the Rangers on April 9, and since then he has stopped Mariners losing streaks of six, four and three games (twice). Fleming, 22, has accomplished all this with a poise that belies his age and inexperience. "Pitching in the College World Series helped me a lot in dealing with pressure," says Fleming. "The more big situations you're in, the more you learn to keep your control and not get rattled."
Fleming didn't even get rattled after being blasted for eight runs in six innings in that first start. And he wins without having overpowering stuff: Fleming had I struck out only 34 batters in 71 innings through Sunday. (He had also walked only 29 and allowed just 66 hits.) "I've been making big pitches in big situations," Fleming says. With runners in scoring position, opponents were 14 for 74 (.189) against him.
Fleming thought he was a power pitcher until his freshman year at Georgia, when he was hit hard. Since then he has learned some of the nuances of pitching and has become a master at changing speeds. "He's got moxie," says Seattle first baseman Pete O'Brien. "The way he pitches, it looks like he'll be able to pitch that way for another 30 years. His ball is always doing something. Most pitchers throw at two speeds; he gives you four or five to look at. No pitch he throws is outstanding, but he has great control. I don't know what Tommy John was like in his prime, but...."
Agent of Fear
Baseball men clearly dislike Scott Boras, the highly successful agent who has represented many of the top amateur players in the country the past few years, because his tough negotiating tactics have made it increasingly expensive for teams to sign their high draft picks. Their fear of Boras's power and influence was apparent in some of the odd selections made in this year's draft, held June 1-3.
Longwood (Va.) College shortstop Michael Tucker was probably the best hitter available in the draft and was considered a certain top five choice after batting .489 with 22 homers this year as a junior. But he slipped to 10th, where the Royals took him, because it was widely believed that Boras was advising him and would later become his agent. (It is a violation of NCAA rules for student-athletes to have agents, but they may have advisers for the draft.) Tucker's father, Calvin, even sent a letter to notify all major league teams that his son was not being advised by Boras. But the persistent notion that Boras was working with Tucker caused his stock to drop. "The only reason everybody backed off [Tucker] was because of Boras," says Art Stewart, the Royals' scouting director. "I can't believe he was available. He's the best [amateur] hitter I've seen since Paul Molitor."
Longwood coach Buddy Bolding also can't believe Tucker lasted that long. "Some teams made an awful mistake," he says. "He's a powerful young man, kind of like Ted Williams. He has a perfect swing. He has the potential to be a 40 [homer]-40 [steal] man."
Charles Johnson, the starting catcher for the University of Miami, also went later in the draft than expected. He was originally the 10th player drafted in 1989, by Montreal, after he graduated from Westwood High in Fort Pierce, Fla. But with Boras as his adviser, he turned down the Expos' offer of a $205,000 signing bonus and enrolled at Miami instead. Some scouts have since cooled a bit on his talents, but it was still a shock that he wasn't taken until the last pick of the first round, by the Florida Marlins. Boras, who is still advising Johnson, said a week before the draft that Johnson "was the best American-born catcher in the draft in the last 10 years."
The Twins' Kirby Puckett, who is eligible to become a free agent at the end of this season, said that his breaking off contract negotiations on May 26 would not affect his play, but he may have been wrong. Since then, he has played much better. Through Sunday, Puckett had hit .408 with five homers (two of them grand slams) and 18 RBIs in the 11 games since talks ended....
Until last Saturday, when number 4 hitter Cory Snyder homered and drove in seven runs, the Giants had used four cleanup hitters this season who together had hit .193 with five home runs. As a result Will Clark led the major leagues with 13 intentional walks through last weekend....
The Angels figured to have trouble scoring runs this year, and sure enough, they've hit the skids of late. "I believe I could come here tomorrow and pitch against our team, and I could beat them," said California leftfielder Luis Polonia.
Between The Lines
The Money Game
On June 4, in his first appearance at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium since signing with the Mets as a free agent, former Pirate outfielder Bobby Bonilla had to dodge a golf ball thrown at him from the stands in the eighth inning. "That happens to me here too, and I'm one of the good guys," said Pittsburgh centerfielder Andy Van Slyke. "Batteries. Golf balls. Money. Now that's what I don't understand. Fans are mad at us because we make so much money, then they throw money at us—quarters, nickels. Why? Throw me a tax audit. Throw me your electric bill."
It's an odd statistic for a player whose nickname is Pee Wee, but through Sunday, 5'8" Mariners utilityman Greg Briley had not walked in 91 at bats this year.
Making a Bad First Impression
No player chosen in this year's amateur draft is ready to play in the major leagues yet, but Cal State-Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin, who was picked No. 1 overall by the Astros, acts like a big leaguer. He already has his own baseball card and a Louisville Slugger with his name on it, and he wears the Oakley sunglasses favored by many professional players. That has prompted a few grumbles from some of his future Houston teammates—and even from players on other teams. "Look at that," one Oriole said while watching Nevin in the College World Series on television in the Baltimore clubhouse. "He hasn't even signed, and he's styling already. Tell him to lose the glasses and the aluminum bat, then we'll talk."
Blunder from Down Under
A crew from the Aussie television show Real Life Australia recently came to Milwaukee to interview Brewers backup catcher Dave Nilsson, who is from Brisbane. The show's host, David White, was approached before a game by Milwaukee media relations director Tom Skibosh, who told him, "I've got good news for you. Nilsson is catching today." White replied, "Oh, and will he bat, too?"
What a week for grand slams. The Mets' Eddie Murray hit the 16th of his career, tops among active players (though still well short of Lou Gehrig's major league record of 23). The Twins' Kirby Puckett had two bases-loaded blasts, after hitting none in the first 5,191 at bats of his career. The Mariners' Kevin Mitchell also hit his first slam in the majors, after 164 homers.
A Pitcher Who's Not Easily Cowed
Pirate Stan Belinda beat teammate Jay Bell in a cow milking contest on the field at Three Rivers Stadium on June 3. Belinda was chosen because he lives on a farm; Bell is a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Dairy Association in Pittsburgh. "He used three teats, I used one, and I only lost by a quarter of an inch," Bell said. Other Pirates disagreed. "He lost by a quart," said Van Slyke. "It wouldn't have been that close except Jay was pumping that skim milk and Stan was doing whole milk."
By the Numbers
•Through Sunday, Blue Jay Dave Winfield had grounded into 287 double plays, the most among active players and 41 short of Hank Aaron's major league record.