Every baseball fan knows that pitching is Baltimore's thing - and has been ever since the modern-era Orioles were born in 1954. The pennant-winning teams of the 1960s and early '70s certainly owed a great deal of their success to a deep and talented mound corps featuring such stalwarts as Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, and Mike Cuellar. And although most of the names have changed since then, the team has invariably come up with top replacements like Cy Young Award winners Steve Stone and Mike Flanagan plus such other outstanding hurlers as Scott McGregor, Dennis Martinez, Tippy Martinez, etc.
This year is no exception, either. Starting out, the Orioles looked solid as gold on the mound, with a nucleus of Flanagan, Palmer, Dennis Martinez, and McGregor, which had started 144 games a year ago and carried the club to within one game of the American League East title. But Palmer experienced arm and back problems and hasn't pitched since April 26; Flanagan went out with a knee injury three weeks ago and won't be back until mid-July at the earliest; and Martinez has struggled through a difficult spring with a 4-9 record and a 4.98 earned-run average.
Given all this, it would hardly be surprising to find the Orioles struggling too, but there they are in their accustomed spot battling for top honors. In fact they lead the division at the moment as they wind up a road trip with a key series against the defending champion Brewers in Milwaukee this week before heading to Baltimore for a nine-game home stand.
How are they doing it? Well, Flanagan got off to his best start ever with a 6-0 record before the injury, and McGregor has now assumed the role of the stopper while compiling an 8-3 mark so far. And once again the team has come up with a couple of fine-looking young hurlers to fill the gaps in 21-year-old Storm Davis and 25-year-old Mike Boddicker.
Davis, of course, was not a complete surprise. The 6 ft. 4 in., 207-pound right-hander spent most of last year with the Orioles and won eight games in a fine rookie campaign. He was the youngest player in the American League in 1982 , but pitched with the poise of a veteran - especially in the final weekend when he defeated Milwaukee in a big Friday night game to keep the O's alive.
Storm (the nickname was given to him by his mother after a character in a book) looks so much like the young Jim Palmer that first-time observers usually do quite a double-take when he approaches in his Baltimore uniform. He resembles the three-time Cy Young Award winner out on the mound, too, and admits that it isn't all coincidence. ''I watched Jim pitch when I was a kid,'' he says, ''and I copied a lot of his style and habits.''
He has a long way to go, of course, to match some of Palmer's records, but Jim, for one, has high hopes for the youngster.
''He has better control, a better curve, better command of his pitches, and more poise than I did at his age,'' says the veteran right-hander, who has just been reactivated but will probably work in relief for a while before moving back into a starting spot.
Certainly Davis had it all the other night in Boston as he shut out the Red Sox on three hits to notch his fourth victory of the year and solidify Baltimore's hold on first place.
Boddicker was a bit more of an unknown quantity after dividing 1982 between a starting role at Rochester and a few relief jobs over the last two months in Baltimore. He's done a fine job, though, since being pressed into service, with a 4-2 record and a 3.13 ERA.
And now still a third young pitcher - Al Ramirez - is being given a chance to show his stuff as a spot starter. Al is a 26-year-old right-hander who throws hard but not always too accurately. In fact he led the International League in walks last year with 117, and walked five batters in seven innings in his first start for Baltimore this year. He has the stuff, though, if he can learn to get it over the plate consistently, and right now with both Palmer and Flanagan still out of the starting rotation he is getting a chance to try.
Meanwhile the bullpen has been solid as expected, with the key trio of Tom Stoddard, Tippy Martinez, and Sammy Stewart combining for eight victories and 11 saves to date.
For a long time, people tended to give most of the credit for Baltimore's continued excellence on the mound to George Bamberger, the team's pitching coach for 10 years. But George has long since moved on to managing jobs at Milwaukee and New York, and now into retirement, and his absence hasn't seemed to affect the situation appreciably.
Manager Earl Weaver also got his share of accolades over the years, of course , but now he, too, is retired (replaced this year by Joe Altobelli), and still the beat goes on.
So what is the secret?
''They've signed a lot of good kids over the years, and they've made some good trades,'' noted Boston Manager Ralph Houk, but he was reluctant to attribute too much of this to any extroadinary astuteness on the part of the Baltimore front office.
''There's a lot of luck involved in trades,'' he said. ''As for the manager and coaches, they can help if the pitchers are good to start with, but they can't do much otherwise.You didn't see the Mets' pitching improve that much when Bamberger went there, did you?
''These things run in cycles, and the Orioles have just had a lot of good pitchers over the last 15 years or so.''
They've also had a lot of good fielders - which bullpen coach Ellie Hendricks thinks has more to do with it than people realize.
''With Brooks Robinson at third and Mark Belanger at short, almost nothing got through the left side of the infield,'' he said. ''But people forget we had another Gold Glover at second in Davey Johnson, and Boog Powell was no slouch at first. And the way Paul Blair played center field he cut off a lot of hits and covered so much ground he let the other outfielders play a little closer to the lines.
''A pitcher is only as good as the guys who play behind him,'' the former standout catcher on many of those teams added. ''And obviously he starts getting more confidence when he has guys making the plays they made day after day.''
Those names are gone now too, of course, but just as they have on the pitching staff, the Orioles have found a steady stream of outstanding replacements. While today's infield of Eddie Murray, Rich Dauer, Cal Ripken, and Leo Hernandez may not quite evoke memories of that standout quartet of yore, it's a pretty good confidence-builder in its own right. And although there aren't many Paul Blairs around anywhere, the current outfield does the job well enough - especially when rookie John Shelby is in the lineup.
So maybe it's the pitchers themselves, or the defense behind them, or a combination of the two, but whatever it is, the Orioles are always high up there in the mound department - and this year is no different.