The Baltimore Orioles moved into first place by fiat yesterday.
American League President Lee MacPhail's decision to expunge a victory from the New York Yankees' win column was just the latest in a long line of curious circumstances and strokes of luck that might lead a pennant-race watcher to conclude that 1983 might be a blessed season for the Orioles.
The fiat would not have been enough for first place without a victory Wednesday night. Baltimore finished with 16 hits and 10 walks off four Angel pitchers in a 10-4 road trip finale. Cal Ripken had four hits and three RBI and Allan Ramirez improved to 4-1.
The Orioles, who open a three-game series against Texas tonight at Memorial Stadium, have played .700 ball (14-6) since the All-Star break and have won 14 of 18 games, including seven of 10 on the West Coast in recent days.
Those numbers, however, are not the strongest reason for the Orioles to suspect that the currents in baseball's tide are shifting their way.
The day after the All-Star break, the Orioles seemed to be on the brink of disaster. Pitchers Mike Flanagan, Jim Palmer and Tippy Martinez--two Cy Young Award winners and the team's ace reliever--would be on the disabled list for a month. Outfielder Dan Ford and catcher Joe Nolan were also on the disabled list.
Three healthy pitchers--Dennis Martinez, Sammy Stewart and Tim Stoddard--were in slumps as deep as they were inexplicable. The Orioles were reduced to a starting rotation that included Mike Boddicker, Ramirez, Paul Mirabella and 21-year-old star Storm Davis.
In the three weeks since, how the Orioles' prospects have changed. While merely trying to endure, the Orioles have suddenly soared. Every game has seemed to herald a new, unlikely, and thus inspirational star.
Ford came off the disabled list and hit three home runs with his first three swings, all in one game. Nolan returned, too. Ramirez (4-1, 2.66) and Boddicker (6-5, 3.67) showed that they can win in a pennant race. Suddenly, their presence makes the Orioles the most pitching-rich team in baseball. Even chubby, chawin' Dan Morogiello, the humblest of journeymen, set an example of gutty, give-what-you've-got pitching (3.47 ERA in 16 games).
Stewart, Stoddard and Dennis Martinez--forced into crisis combat out of raw necessity--have taken strides toward rehabilitating their confidence and their reputations.
Even Martinez (6-12) had six innings of victorious long relief in Anaheim and is now back in the rotation until further notice, and just in time.
Stewart has had four decent outings in a row. The curse appears to have left Stoddard, who also has four consecutive solid games under his large belt.
As the Orioles prepare to meet collapsing Texas (3-11) this weekend, all their news is good. Tippy Martinez and Flanagan expect to pitch in a simulated game today and may be on the mound in a real game within a week thereafter. Palmer, for what it is worth, says he'll be ready soon.
Normally, when a team begins to get all its moving parts back in order in such rapid succession, that club begins to make a charge toward the top. In other words, they've usually in desperate shape and have to catch up.
Baltimore is in first place, has the second-best record in baseball, is at a 95-victory pace and doesn't encounter the truly difficult chunk of its schedule until the last four weeks of the season..
Nothing convinces a team it deserves to be a champion, and nothing seals the resolve for the pressures of September and October, like a collective surmounting of adversity in June-July-August.
The Orioles began 1983 with a common bond--the desire to prove they, and not just Earl Weaver, were the source of Baltimore's excellence. Now, Joe Altobelli's team seems to be building a more vital attribute--the commonly held sense that it is a team of inner quality and, perhaps, a smidgeon of destiny.