- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

A sports psychologist named Fran Pirozzolo says Derek Jeter’s .190 batting average has nothing to do with the fact that newcomer Alex Rodriguez is getting much more attention from the media and making much more money from the New York Yankees.

Too bad because without a controversy or two, the Yankees are just another good team instead of the Yankees. And wouldn’t it be fun to watch A-Rod and DJ spatting (if not spitting) on the dugout floor tonight when the erstwhile Bronx Bombers make their first visit of 2004 to Camden Yards?

Regardless, the proceedings should be interesting and, for the Orioles, vital. They come in as a 20-20 vision after losing four straight in Seattle and Anaheim, and first-year skipper Lee Mazzilli might be thinking managing isn’t quite as delightful as he suspected a fortnight ago.

Still unproven is the notion that the offseason free agent additions of Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro made the Orioles a much better outfit. Is that true — or are they as weak, particularly on pitching fronts, as the team that stunk up Angel Stadium over the weekend? We should have a pretty good idea after the O’s and Yankees tangle six times in the next nine days.

Over most of eight decades, other American League teams with lofty ambitions have found it necessary to so inform the Yankees face to face. That’s another way of saying the Orioles must prove they can survive hand-to-hand combat with a team that takes winning as something of a divine right.

Ever since Babe Ruth was a new guy in town, good Yankees outfits have beaten up on losers — the laggards who used to be called second-division teams. That’s exactly what they did to those six straight fourth-place Orioles teams (known, unaffectionately, as the Woes rather than O’s). Since 1998, Baltimore has a 29-64 record against New York, a worse winning percentage (.312) than in its first six seasons after escaping life as the St. Louis Browns in 1954 (.348).

Mazzilli knows all about Yankee power, having been a coach under Joe Torre for four years before Orioles VPs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan crooked their fingers. Since baseball managers do not exchange meaningless post-combat handshakes as football and basketball coaches do, any pleasantries between Mazzilli and Torre tonight likely will take place around the batting cage. And wouldn’t it be fun to be a cicada on the wall?

TORRE: “Hey, Lee, how’s it goin’?”

MAZZILLI: “Joe, Joe, Joe — what have I gotten myself into?”

That’s not going to happen, of course, because Mazzilli is an extremely positive chap who probably wouldn’t have let despondency in the door had he skippered the 20-134 Cleveland Spiders of 1899. But unless his starting pitchers develop some consistency, Lee may feel old enough by September to have managed 105 summers ago.

The Orioles’ team ERA is a horrid 4.84, slightly higher than last season — and that’s with relievers B.J. Ryan, Jorge Julio, Rodrigo Lopez, Buddy Groom and Darwin Cubillan all well under 3.00. But the numbers for the current four starters are enough to make pitching coach Mark (“Coyote”) Wiley look for other work. Despite complete games in his last two starts, nominal ace Sidney Ponson is at 5.40. Erik Bedard is at 4.97, Eric Dubose at 4.67 and defrocked whiz kid Daniel Cabrera at 4.32. Now, out of sheer necessity, Lopez is starting, although he performed brilliantly as a setup man.

The Orioles well might promote Denny Bautista from Class AA Bowie and restore promising Matt Riley from the disabled list any day now. But what the O’s need is an accomplished, dependable veteran who can take the ball every five days and give a strong effort — something Ponson was supposed to be doing.

Heck, with former pitchers Beattie and Flanagan in the front office and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer doing TV analysis, the O’s have more pitching off the field than on.

Offensively and defensively, the Orioles are doing fine. With major league batting leader Melvin Mora, Tejada and Javy Lopez punching away, the team average is a muscular .278. The slumping Palmeiro hasn’t busted loose yet (.261 with six home runs and 26 RBI in a quarter of the season), but pretty soon people should be ducking his shots onto the Eutaw Street promenade beyond the right-field wall. The same goes for Jay Gibbons (.248, six, 25).

Yet in baseball, it always comes down to pitching: Sooner or later, you have to stop the other guys consistently. The Yankees haven’t exactly been knocking down walls with a team average of .253. True, A-Rod is on the move after a slow start (.292, 10 homers, 24 RBI), but their second leading power man, Jason Giambi, is on the DL, and the only pinstripers hitting better than .300 are catcher Jorge Posada and aging part-timer Ruben Sierra.

Although they trail Boston by 11/2 games in the AL East, the Yankees remain — as always — the division’s team to beat. Nobody really expects the Orioles to be contenders just yet, but the course of their whole season just might be decided — or at least indicated — by how they fare against a team with 26 World Series titles and unlimited tradition.

“I sure don’t feel like we’re a .500 club,” Mazzilli said Sunday as he left Anaheim. I’m not sure how he meant that, but we might find out pretty soon.

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