If one player has transformed and improved the Baltimore Orioles more than any other this season, it is Mike Boddicker.
If one player saved their season when it might have been lost during that span when Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer missed 35 starts, it was Boddicker.
If one player makes the Orioles' future look significantly brighter than even partisan team officials thought in April, then, once more, the man is Boddicker, who pitched them to an 8-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers tonight. Baltimore now leads the American League East by six games over Detroit, which lost to Boston, 6-1. It's the Orioles' biggest lead of the season, and reduced to 11 their magic number for clinching the division title.
This evening in Memorial Stadium, the 26-year-old right-hander gave the latest in a continuing series of demonstrations that he is probably better than anyone, except Mike Boddicker, ever thought.
The Brewers, though no longer the Big Blue Brew Crew, are still one of the AL's better hitting teams. But they certainly didn't look like it this beautiful cool evening.
Boddicker, who leads the league with four shutouts, was a young master as he mixed his various-speed curves, forkballs, sliders and well-placed fast balls. This victory improved his record to 14-7 and his ERA to 2.72; both are major league highs for rookies this season.
He is 10-3 in his last 14 starts and his ERA in his last seven is 1.33. At home this season he is 10-2.
In this 122-pitch effort, Boddicker held the Brewers to seven hits, all singles except Robin Yount's home run over the 387-foot sign in the ninth inning. Boddicker walked only one man, struck out five and started double plays himself on comebackers hit by Yount and Cecil Cooper.
"I don't remember it feeling as easy to me at that age as it looks for him," said Milwaukee's 272-game winner Don Sutton, who acknowledges that Boddicker's style strongly resembles his own. "I've got a better curve ball than he does, but Boddicker probably throws harder than I ever did. He's not afraid to throw any of his pitches in any count."
Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken may be the heart of the Baltimore club and Scott McGregor the staff ace, but it is Boddicker's sudden emergence that has moved the Orioles up a notch in all eyes, including their own. "Looks like we've got another 15- to 20-game winner," said Ken Singleton.
The Orioles now have winning streaks of 9-2, 12-3, 20-4, 27-7 and 47-20. But, said team owner Edward Bennett Williams, "We still have big problems: seven games with the Tigers." His players, however, do not as yet share his fears.
"If we keep playing like this," said Singleton with a shrug, "that's it."
The Orioles, who now have outscored the league by 161 runs, were chewing on their fourth Milwaukee pitcher before the Brewers could get an out in the fourth inning. By that time, starter Tom Candiotti, Bob McClure (pulled muscle) and Jim Slaton were all in the showers, Rick Waits was on the mound and the Orioles already had 11 of their eventual 17 hits. In all, 23 Orioles reached base, including 17 of their first 24 batters. Only five double play grounders saved the Brewers from a worse defeat.
This laugher was a perfect opportunity to enjoy Boddicker's burgeoning authority on the mound.
"Mike pitches mad," said fellow pitcher Mike Flanagan. "He's the only starter on this staff who does. The rest of us are the same person on the mound that we are off it. Mike is completely different . . .
"Bod has the best concentration of anyone on the staff. He seems to have his pinpoint control with almost every pitch every time he goes out there. We keep waiting for him to go out and not have his stuff, and he never does."
Manager Joe Altobelli, asked if Boddicker fits into his postseason starting rotation, said, "If he pitches like that, it would be foolish not to. Maybe we'll see if he can pitch two days in a row . . . He's been sensational, amazing and a surprise. I've run out of words to describe him. I'm just glad I got that kid."
As counterpoint to Boddicker's night, last year's rookie of the year, Ripken, continued to show his development as a hitter. He's reversed Earl Weaver's crowd-the-plate advice and gone back to his minor league stance--well off the plate--and has hit .390 for the past 26 games.
After three right-field hits, including two of the Orioles' five doubles, Ripken has a major-league leading 44 doubles, a league-leading 107 runs, 302 total bases (second in the AL) and 70 extra-base hits (third). His average is .309 and his 175 runs produced trail AL leader Cooper by only three.
"He's learned to hit to the opposite field with more authority than any second-year player I've ever seen," said Singleton. "Wait 'til he starts hitting home runs that way. He'll be completely uncontrollable."
Sort of like the whole team, at the moment.