Inside Baseball

October 03, 1999

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 infielders 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.

The Red Sox are now contemplating a postseason rotation of the
brothers Martinez, righthander Bret Saberhagen and lefty Kent
Mercker--a group with intimidating credentials and imposing
medical histories. Saberhagen, who plans to undergo minor
off-season surgery on his own rebuilt pitching shoulder,
concedes that he would have shut himself down in early September
had Boston been out of contention. There's no telling how long
his shoulder will last in the cold of October. Though Pedro
(22-4, 2.11 ERA through Sunday) has the American League Cy Young
Award wrapped up, he says that his shoulder has continued to
bother him since soreness caused him to miss two starts after
the All-Star Game. "I think my arm was in better shape last
year," says Pedro, who lost three of four decisions going into
the playoffs last year. "I wasn't as sore as I get now."

The Red Sox might have felt pressure to squeeze an extra start
out of their ace in the postseason. By pitching effectively
earlier than expected, Ramon may have come to his brother's
rescue. --Ian Thomsen

INDIANS NEED A FOURTH
Is Wright Finally Right?

As a 21-year-old rookie in 1997, righthander Jaret Wright
knocked off the Yankees twice in the American League Division
Series, went 3-0 in five postseason starts and carried Cleveland
to the brink of a World Series title. Two years later the
Indians are still looking for an ace to carry them through the
playoffs, but they would settle for a few decent outings from
Wright, a tempestuous fireballer. After a confidence-shaking
season in which he was reprimanded by the league for headhunting
and made two trips to the disabled list with a strained muscle
in his pitching shoulder, Wright (8-9, 5.98 ERA) was still being
counted on to fill the fourth spot in the playoff rotation
behind righthanders Bartolo Colon, Charles Nagy and Dave Burba.

The first step toward getting Wright to fill that role would be
to persuade him to relax and keep his composure on the
mound--something he couldn't do against the Yankees on Sept. 17,
when he was hammered for seven runs and seven walks in 3 2/3
innings and then doffed his cap in a mock salute to the booing
Jacobs Field crowd. In his next start, however, against the
Tigers on Sept. 22, Wright settled down and got his first win
since July 6.

The key was staying low-key before he took the mound. At the
behest of pitching coach Phil Regan, Wright altered his pregame
routine: Instead of throwing roughly 40 pitches, cranking his
fastball up to 97 mph, Wright threw 70 warmup pitches at a more
subdued pace. The approach worked. Wright surrendered two hits,
a walk and one unearned run and struck out eight in seven
innings against Detroit. He also quelled his habit of trying to
escape trouble by outmuscling hitters, instead changing speeds
effectively and throwing his changeup and curveball for strikes
even when behind in the count. "I had to learn that for a power
guy, sometimes less is more," says Wright.

It was only one outing (Wright was scheduled to make at least
one more regular-season start, against the Royals on Tuesday),
and a September game with the division title wrapped up is a far
cry from a playoff pressure cooker. Still, it was the first sign
the Indians have seen this year that Wright may not be a
hindrance to their World Series hopes--and might even be a help.

COLOR PHOTO: MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS Rookie Hairston, 23, flawless at second, may be part of a new look for the Orioles. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE The Indians hope a restrained Wright can bolster their playoff rotation.

the HOT corner

How bad have the Cubs been? Their ERA of 5.31 through Sunday was
the worst in club history by more than half a run.... New
Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd received permission from the Reds to
interview their director of player development, Buddy Bell, for
Colorado's vacant managerial spot, but Cincinnati G.M. Jim
Bowden wouldn't clear Bell to leave. "As long as our manager
[Jack McKeon] is unsigned, I'm not going to give permission for
Buddy to be hired," says Bowden. "[If McKeon isn't signed,]
Buddy would be a candidate for that job." McKeon wants a
multiyear contract and is expected to talk about a new deal
after Oct. 1.... The Angels, who refused to part with lefthander
Chuck Finley at the trade deadline, still hadn't extended his
contract beyond this season, fueling speculation that they'll
let him test the free-agent market. After a 5-10, 5.76 start,
Finley was 7-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 74 strikeouts in his last 10
starts.

For complete scores and stats, plus Tom Verducci's mailbag, go to
cnnsi.com/baseball.

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)