Wednesday, September 12, 2012

They Rise (Fly?) From the Ashes Again

They almost did it in '89. Can the Orioles really do it this time? You read here several weeks ago about how much talent this year's version of the Baltimore Orioles has. Can they really elbow out the Yankees and the Rays for first in the AL East? They almost did it in '89 with only one player having a good year! You could look it up. (I did.)

In 1982 the Orioles finished second in the AL East. Earl Weaver retired. The next year, under Joe Altobelli, the O's won 98 games, finishing first (six games up on the Tigers) and went on to the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.  Last week I wrote about the Whiz Kids, the 1950 Phillies. Well in 1983 the Phillies were the Weeze kids, featuring long time ago Big Red Machine machine veterans Pete Rose, Tony Perez, and Joe Morgan. 

Scott McGregor (18-7), Mike Flanagan (12-4), Storm Davis (13-7), Mike Boddicker (16-8), and Jim Palmer (in his last post-season appearance) took them out in five games. Palmer, who'd been 15-5 in '82 had won just five in '83 and would go out ignominiously (0-3) the next year. 

The '83 Orioles also featured Rick Dempsey, one of the best defensive catchers in baseball. In '84 Boddicker had another great year (20-11) but Palmer wasn't the only Oriole pitcher to struggle. Flanagan fell to 13-13 and McGregor dipped to 15-12. In '83 Eddie Murray had been great (33, 111, .306) as had 22-year old Cal Ripken Jr. (27, 102, .318). John Lowenstein hit fifteen long flies, DH Ken Singleton hit 18 and fill-in outfielder Gary Roenicke added nineteen. 

Murray (29, 119, .306) and Ripken (27, 86, ,304) did well again in '84 but the supporting cast did not do so well, though Wayne Gross (22, 64, .216) added some power. The Orioles won 85 games and the Blue Jays, Yankees, and Red Sox won more. But they were all left in the  dust by the powerful Tigers, who won 35 of their first 40 games and 104 over all.  In '85 the O's were just two games back of Detroit, but the Tigers had returned to Earth with a 84-77 record. The Orioles were sixteen back of the first place Blue Jays.

As you know, things got worse not better. The O's, who had finished first in '1966, '69, 70, '71, '73, 74, and '79, fell to 7th (last) in the AL East in '86. They were 6th in '87 and 7th again in '88.  How times had changed. 

So no one saw it coming when the '89 O's showed signs of life. After 21 games they were 11-10 and their fans were deliriously happy. Why? Because the year before they were 0-21 after 21.  Then they won 13 out of 14 in late May and seven straight in mid-June. They won five in a row in mid-July. Baltimore fans began chanting Why Not? Almost 25 years later you can see a video about the Orioles' '89 season at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o1xcQuXdII 

In '87 the Blue Jays had been swept in a season ending three-game series in Detroit to finish two behind the Tigers, a series still replayed in Rick's nightmares no doubt. They had finished fourth in '88, but a respectable 87-75, compared to the O's dismal 54-107. 

After their first 36 games in '89 it was obvious Toronto wasn't going anywhere. They were 12-24. The fired their manager Jimy Williams. That helped a lot. They played .611 ball the rest of the year. They won five of six in mid-May and went 16-5 from June 2nd to 23rd. The wheels fell off at the end of June as they won just two of eleven, but in mid-July the Jays got going again (12-5) and they were red hot from August 14 to September 8, winning 22 of 27.  

The Orioles won eight out of nine in late August and at the end of the month they were tied with the Jays for first. The Jays played just .500 ball the rest of the way, but it was good enough to edge Baltimore by two games. (Toronto would lose to the A's 4-1 in the American League Championship Series.)

The surprising thing is that neither team got great performances from either hitters or pitchers. Fred McGriff hit 36 home runs and knocked in 92, George Bell and Kelly Gruber hit 18 each. But Dave Steib was the only successful pitcher at 17-8. Jimmy Key was 13-14, John Cerutti was 11-11, and former Oriole Flanagan was 8-10. 

But even worse than Blue Jay arms were the Baltimore bats. Ripken led the way at 21, 93, .257. Catcher Mickey Tettleton (no Rick Dempsey behind the plate) was 26, 65, .258 in his first full season. Hardly Hall of Fame numbers. And this time no one came off the bench to spark the offence. Combined the team hit .252 with just 129 home runs. Gregg Olson had 27 saves and Mark Williamson went 10- 5, 2.93 but their big gun, Bob Milecki was just 14-12 and Dave Schmidt was 10-13. 

In '89 it was all about one guy. In 1987, his rookie season, Jeff Ballard won two and lost eight. The next year he was 8-12. But in 1989, with an 85-mph fastball, he was 18-8. He beat Boston horse Roger Clemens, Oakland's ace Dave Stewart, and Kansas City's Bret Saberhagen. In an August game against the Yankees he struck out Don Mattingly three times. (He struck out only 27 other times all year). He was the darling of Baltimore and was invited back last weekend to be feted with Cal and Brooks et al. Ballard was really the only reason the O's did as well as they did. And that was it for Ballard. In the next two seasons he was an impressive 2-11 and 6-12. The O's dropped to 5th in 1990 and then sixth in '91.

This year several O's are enjoying good seasons, namely center fielder Adam Jones (.298 with 29 home runs), first baseman Chris Davis, third baseman Mark Reynolds (21 homers), catcher Matt Weiters (19), and shortstop J.J. Hardy (another Oriole shortstop with power) with 19 dingers as well.  

Wei-Yen Chen has been their most successful starter at 12-9, though his ERA is 4.06.  Jason Hammel is 8-6, 3.46. Their other starters, Tommy Hunter (4-8, 5.85 ERA and Jake Arrieta (3-9, 6.21) have not fared well at all but Darren O'Day is 7-1 out of the bullpen, a tribute to how many one run games the O's are winning. Their closer, Jim Johnson, has saved 42 out of 45 chances. He's tied with Fernando Rodney of the Rays for most saves in the bigs.

Can this be the year the O's put recent history in the past? They don't have Jeff Ballard But they may do it without him. Alas for Blue Jay fans the Orioles are the only birds flying high this summer.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

You know, Will, despite what I said last week, the O's just might take the division from the Yanks. This is going to be a very interesting end-of-year in the AL East. Remember last year's final day? This could be better.