Rick Sutcliffe's 158-pitch victory over the Orioles the other night was 3 hours 11 minutes of torture by humidity. The Indians' right-hander went to 3-2 on nine jillion hitters. Abe Lincoln didn't need that long to write his Gettysburg stuff. If you climbed on the Concorde when Sutcliffe began his work, you'd be in Paris before he finished.
"If I had two pitchers like Sutcliffe," said Ray Miller, the Orioles' pitching coach, "it would drive me ker-razy."
We're at Miller's locker, where he keeps his precious black book of pitching stats under his sack of chewing tobacco, because once again the Orioles are doing magical things, mostly when they take hold of a baseball and do what Miller tells them. Through 106 games they had given up the fewest runs in the American League.
"The stat I'm proudest of is 'complete-game victories with less than 100 pitches,' " he said, reaching under the Red Man for his black book. "We've had 34 in six seasons."
There's an orange outline of home plate on the black T-shirt Miller wears under his uniform. Inside the lines are words he preaches to his flock:
Hold 'Em Close
"If they do all that," Miller said, smiling, "then we shake their hands."
Upon this rock, the Orioles have built a dynasty (they have finished first or second 14 of the last 17 years and have baseball's best record the last 26 seasons).
These nine words, commandments to pitchers who would fall into the sins of sloth and pride, lift the veil of mystery from the magic that keeps the Orioles near the top of baseball's best division when some evidence suggests chaos at hand.
It ain't magic.
It's common sense practiced over the long haul until the laws of baseball percentages work to make ordinary pitchers extraordinary. The Orioles' good work this season is based on good pitching by pitchers hardly anyone else wanted. Six were late-round draft choices, one a released free agent and another a minor leaguer acquired in a 10-man trade. Tippy Martinez alone had big league experience, and only Palmer was a can't-misser.
What these men have in common is a Baltimore education: of the 10 pitchers now on the staff (including Palmer), seven signed originally with the Orioles and the others have been in the organization at least six seasons.
Available evidence in early August could be reason to assume the Orioles were in trouble.
They used 13 pitchers, three more than at the same time last year. They used eight front-line starters, not the five they hoped for. Five pitchers were shuffled to and from the minors, including the handsome one in underwear. The Orioles' leading winner in '82 now is serving a second stretch of hard time in the bullpen.
Joe Altobelli, the manager, said he didn't like sending Dennis Martinez to the bullpen again.
"If it makes him mad, okay," Altobelli said. "If it makes him mad enough to pitch well, that's better." The skipper took a puff at his cigar, falling silent.
Mike Flanagan returned from a knee injury only this week. Palmer is in the rotation at Class A Hagerstown for maybe another two weeks. Martinez shares the league lead in defeats. The Orioles' infield turns a double play only infrequently (next to last in the league statistics), and the hitters have been inconsistent (although the big-inning Orioles still lead the league in home runs).
Yet the Orioles, entering August, led the AL East.
It ain't "Oriole Magic," as the banners say. It's the Orioles' way.
"We have an outstanding minor league pitching instructor, Kenny Rowe," Miller said. "The pitchers come here with the pitches, fundamentally sound. They only need to know how to pitch in this league, which is my job. How to set up the hitters, what they like, why that pitch worked. All that."
It begins when a pitcher signs with the Orioles.
"The conditioning, our approach to pitching, begins early," Miller said. "We don't care about strikeouts. It takes too many pitches to strike out anybody. Work fast because it keeps your fielders on their toes. Throw strikes, change speeds, let the fielders do the work, stay out of big innings--and we'll shake hands afterwards." Young pitchers Storm Davis, Mike Boddicker and Allan Ramirez, take over for Flanagan, Palmer and Martinez. The bullpen of men few teams wanted--Tim Stoddard, Sammy Stewart, Tippy Martinez--"has been outstanding all year," Altobelli said.
Throwing more fast balls ("We're up 3 percent, which out of 13,515 pitches is 400 more fast balls in key situations," Miller said), the Orioles have walked 100 fewer hitters this year than last. In defensive statistics that confirm sound fundamentals (walks, passed balls, balks, errors, hit batters, complete games, shutouts, earned runs), the Orioles rank first or second in the league (and fourth in wild pitches).
In September, with the pennant at stake, Altobelli will do the sound thing, too. He wants Jim Palmer ready. "Things are going to get tenser and tenser, and who would you want to go with: a Cy Young winner more than once, or a youngster who's never been through it? If Jim's not hurting and he has a few games under his belt, you'd be crazy not to use him."
No magic there. Common sense.