Inside Baseball

August 02, 1998

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 15 1/2 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 15 1/2 games out of a
playoff berth and reached the postseason. Then again, the
Orioles had cut 8 1/2 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 3 1/2 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."

One year later people are finally looking, and some of those
first impressions are changing. At week's end shortstop Mike
Caruso, 21, who was playing in Class A for the Giants a year
ago, led the White Sox in hitting with a .311 average.
Righthander Keith Foulke, 25, who was 1-5 with an 8.26 ERA with
the Giants before the trade, was tops on the Chicago staff with
43 appearances and had a 4.21 ERA. Righthander Bobby Howry, 24,
hadn't allowed a run in his last 12 1/3 innings and had been so
impressive that the organization was thinking of trading
relievers Matt Karchner and Bill Simas and making Howry a closer
in the near future. Righthander Lorenzo Barcelo, 20, was in the
Arizona rookie league and throwing in the 90s again after having
bone chips removed from his elbow in April. Lefthander Ken
Vining, 23, was having a solid year in Double A (7-8, 4.22 ERA
in 21 starts) and should merit roster protection after the
season. That would leave 23-year-old outfielder Brian Manning
(.303 in 53 games in Class A after being demoted from Double A
in May) as the only one of the six former Giants not on the
White Sox' 40-man roster this winter.

Meanwhile, Alvarez and Hernandez fled the Giants as free agents
during the off-season, so all San Francisco has to show for the
trade is the 42-year-old Darwin and four draft picks. Of course,
the Giants also won the '97 National League West, and that may
be a big reason they are winning the battle with the A's for Bay
Area fan support.

All of which raises a question about the relative merits of
short-term versus long-term success. Reinsdorf and general
manager Ron Schueler knew they couldn't re-sign Alvarez or
Hernandez, didn't feel their club was good enough to advance in
the playoffs and decided to acquire some building blocks for the
future. "We looked at the risk/reward factor for us, felt it was
time to get younger, and we're very happy with the progress of
those players," Schueler says. "But you don't get that many
chances [for a title] in this business, so I take my hat off to
Brian Sabean."

Sabean, who was groomed in the Yankees organization, believes
the chance to win a pennant today is worth any reasonable risk
for tomorrow. "The only way you get to the future is to worry
about now," says Sabean, who made two more trades last week.
With his club starting the second half by losing 11 of 13 to
fall 3 1/2 games behind the Cubs in the wild-card race, Sabean
acquired Joe Carter from the Orioles and dealt valuable middle
reliever Steve Reed and promising outfield prospect Jacob Cruz
to the Indians for pitchers Jose Mesa and Alvin Morman, and
35-year-old shortstop Shawon Dunston.

"Some G.M.'s tend to be overly cautious and are afraid of the
unknown," Sabean said last week. "I don't regret the fact Caruso
is doing well with the White Sox. We got what we wanted [a
division title] out of that deal. If you take care of the
present, the future will take care of itself."

Wakefield's Flighty Pitch
THE KNUCKLER'S BACK ON TRACK

If you were asked to name the winningest pitchers in baseball
over the past year, you'd probably come up with a list that
included Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. It would
probably be a while before Tim Wakefield's name was mentioned.
But since the '97 All-Star break, the Red Sox righthander has
inconspicuously put together a 20-11 record and a 4.01 ERA. It's
an unlikely run for this knuckleball pitcher whose career path
has been a lot like his favorite pitch--highly unpredictable.

He started out as an infielder drafted by the Pirates in 1988,
but when he failed to hit much more than his weight, he made the
transition to knuckleball pitcher. Three years later, in July
'92, Wakefield joined the Pittsburgh staff and confounded
hitters, pitching his way to an 8-1 record and a 2.15 ERA before
winning two games in the National League Championship Series.
The following July he was struggling so badly he was demoted to
the minors, where he spent much of the rest of '93 and all of
'94. He was released by Pittsburgh in April '95 and signed by
the Red Sox, for whom he won 10 straight starts and finished
16-8 with a 2.95 ERA. But his ERA ballooned to 5.14 in '96, and
he didn't regain consistent command of his knuckler until the
second half of last year.

Wakefield acknowledges that since he arrived in Boston, he has
at various times been the best and worst pitcher on the staff.
"It was like a huge roller-coaster ride that was making me sick
to my stomach," Wakefield says. "Finally, I started looking at
the history of knuckleballers and realized that they don't often
have ERAs under 3.00. I've learned not to worry so much about
being perfect."

Wakefield has gained better perspective on his career by
speaking to his "fraternity brothers"-- fellow knuckleballers
like Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough, Steve Sparks, Dennis Springer
and his primary counselor, Phil Niekro. It was in 1992, when
Niekro was summoned to Atlanta to throw batting practice to the
Braves in preparation for a playoff game against the Pirates,
that the Hall of Famer first saw Wakefield pitch in person.
Niekro recalls marveling at Wakefield's skill with the
knuckleball after just a few years of throwing it. (The pitch is
used primarily by older guys because it takes years to master.)
When the struggling Wakefield later signed with Boston, Niekro
was hired by the Red Sox to be his tutor.

"Tim was so successful early, and then he just lost it," Niekro
says. "That's when it becomes very tough mentally to throw a
pitch that everybody knows is coming. I've told him that he's
got to keep learning, he's got to eat, sleep, walk and talk the
knuckleball until it floats in his bloodstream like a spirit
inside of him."

This season Martinez and Wakefield stand alongside Atlanta's
Maddux and Tom Glavine as the best 1-2 pitching combinations in
baseball. The Red Sox have won back-to-back games 12 times this
season with Martinez overpowering hitters one day and Wakefield
underpowering them the next. In the past Wakefield had tried to
change speeds on the knuckleball, but now he concentrates on a
consistent delivery. He is throwing strikes on 67% of his
pitches, and consequently, he is giving up fewer walks. He also
has allowed more than four runs in just two of his 21 starts
this year but takes more satisfaction from the fact that he
lasted at least six innings in 18 of those games and 5 2/3 in
two others. "I want to throw as many innings as possible because
as long as I'm out there, I feel I'm giving the team a good
chance to win," Wakefield says. "I'm gaining confidence every
game, and the pitch is becoming less and less mysterious."

For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Hotter than July With six homers since the break, Eric Davis is one reason for Baltimore's rise. COLOR PHOTO: ORLIN WAGNER/AP [Tim Wakefield pitching]

THE BUZZ

There is a growing faction within the Dodgers that is
questioning whether fledgling general manager Tommy Lasorda can
handle the job. First, Lasorda dealt prized prospect Paul
Konerko and lefthander Dennis Reyes to the Reds for closer Jeff
Shaw and later admitted that he wasn't aware Shaw had the right
to demand a trade after the season--and can become a free agent
if the Dodgers don't comply by March 15. Then Lasorda engineered
two more unpopular deals. The L.A. players grumbled after
Lasorda acquired starter Brian Bohanon by sending middle
reliever Greg McMichael back to the Mets, who are competing with
the Dodgers for the wild card and had been suffering since
losing McMichael in the June trade for Hideo Nomo. Worse,
Lasorda improved the Padres by sending them reliever Jim Bruske
in exchange for Class A righthander Widd Workman. Lasorda
ignored the fact that the Dodgers and Padres are such bitter
division rivals that they hadn't made a trade since April 17,
1969. "I can't believe it," one L.A. player said of the Bruske
trade. "The Padres need help in the bullpen, and we're helping
them out?"

GOOD COMPANY

No, this is not a test question that asks which name doesn't
belong. These pitchers have the most victories during the period
from the 1997 All-Star break through Sunday. The surprise is
that Tim Wakefield (left) actually does belong.

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

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)