There is no question Juan Guzman can help a team on the fringes of playoff contention, a team that believes it is one starting pitcher away from making a run, a team that can afford to rent him for two months. The Baltimore Orioles have heard from half a dozen such teams in regards to Guzman, with the July 31 trading deadline approaching.
But suddenly, the Orioles themselves are beginning to believe they are one of those teams. Whether that and tonight's 1-0 victory over the Anaheim Angels are enough to keep Guzman in Baltimore remains to be seen in the next seven days.
In what could have been his last start at Oriole Park at Camden Yards as an Oriole, Guzman threw eight shutout innings, delighting a crowd of 43,945 and sending the Orioles to their fourth straight victory, ninth in their last 11 games. They remain 9 1/2 games behind Toronto for the wild-card lead.
With Guzman, the question is never his ability, but his consistency. Tonight was only the second time he has pitched past the seventh inning this season and only his second win since the middle of June.
"The last time he pitched like this was in Atlanta six starts ago," said Manager Ray Miller, failing to give Guzman the same endorsement he gave Scott Erickson the night before. "If you do that with any consistency, there wouldn't be any question."
Closer Mike Timlin got the last two outs for his 11th save and second in two nights. "This team is capable of running off 20 games in a row," Timlin said. "So, no, I wouldn't like to see this team broken up."
Guzman (5-8) received plenty of help tonight from his league-leading defense. Albert Belle made a nice sliding catch in right field in the second. Third baseman Cal Ripken made a pair of lunging, falling stops on sharp grounders. And backup catcher Mike Figga made a handful of nice blocks on wayward sinkers and sliders in the dirt.
Miller gave Figga an unscheduled start in place of Charles Johnson on a hunch that Figga, who is two inches shorter than 6-foot-2 Johnson, would provide a lower target for Guzman's sinker. The strategy worked. Guzman struck out four batters and got 10 outs via ground balls.
Guzman has struggled in the first inning, especially, allowing opponents to hit .349, vs. .272 the rest of the game. But tonight, he was helped by a pregame bullpen session in which he and pitching coach Bruce Kison pitched two simulated innings, trying to push Guzman past his usual first-inning woes.
That, too, worked. Guzman made it through the first unscathed, despite two walks. "I did a lot of work in the bullpen," Guzman said. "That's why I couldn't finish the game."
Angels starter Jack McDowell (0-1), the 1993 American League Cy Young winner, made his first start since Sept. 24, 1998. Since then he has had surgery on both his right elbow and shoulder. Despite a fastball that topped out at 87 mph, he limited the Orioles to six hits over 5 2/3 innings.
The plodding lower half of the Orioles' lineup scraped together a run in the fourth. Harold Baines led off with a double to center, but was held up at third base by third-base coach Sam Perlozzo on Will Clark's single to right -- much to the chagrin of Clark, who stared in disbelief at Baines and Perlozzo. Baines eventually scored on Ripken's sacrifice fly.
The Orioles lost a chance to add to their lead in the seventh, when Figga led off with a single and Brady Anderson followed with a walk against Angels left-hander Mike Magnante. But the rally was defused by a poorly executed bunt by Mike Bordick, who bunted back to Magnante for an easy force-out at third.
But Guzman made the slim lead hold up through a 1-2-3 eighth, and Jesse Orosco and Timlin, representing an increasingly well-rested bullpen, took care of the ninth.
The Orioles have all but given Guzman's place in the 2000 starting rotation to Matt Riley, the left-handed rocket who is scheduled to land in Baltimore in September. But if this was indeed his last start for the Orioles, Guzman will leave much the same way he came to them -- as an ideal rent-a-pitcher for a team hoping to make a stretch run, a pitcher who saves his best for the biggest.
While Guzman's fastball clocked in at a languid 88 to 90 mph most of the game, in one of the game's biggest at-bats he reared back and struck out Mo Vaughn on a 94-mph heater to end a two-on, two-out threat in the fifth.
"He's been a pretty good big-game pitcher in his career," Miller said. "That's something to keep in mind."
Orioles Notes: New York Mets General Manager Steve Phillips today denied a story in the New York Post that said he had spoken to the Orioles about acquiring Belle. "There is no chance we're getting Albert Belle," Phillips said. However, baseball sources said the Mets remain interested in left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes . . .
Catcher Lenny Webster, who was designated for assignment on July 16 in the hopes of trading him, instead was placed on waivers today. After clearing waivers, he became a free agent. . . .
Second baseman Delino DeShields was back in the lineup for the first time since straining his right hamstring June 20 in Chicago. . . . Ripken's 1,555th RBI tied him with Willie McCovey for 30th place all-time.