The Baltimore Orioles aren't nearly as potent as they were last season, when they set a major league record for home runs and could boast of a postseason lineup in which all nine players hit 20 homers or more.
But many believe the Oriole team that meets the Cleveland Indians in Game 3 of the American League championship series today is better equipped to reach the World Series than last year's model.
The reason? Mike Bordick, the free-agent shortstop who left Oakland last winter to replace the legend known as Cal Ripken Jr. and help transform the Orioles from a one-dimensional team to a 3-D work of art.
Baltimore still has some pop, with Rafael Palmeiro, Eric Davis and Geronimo Berroa, but the Orioles' overall pitching has improved, and their defense is much better than it was last season.
The addition of Bordick allowed the slow-footed Ripken to move to third, which made the Orioles better at two positions. The rangy Bordick gets to balls Ripken could only imagine getting to, and Ripken is a better third baseman than the B.J. Surhoff/Todd Zeile combination of 1996.
Combine that with six-time Gold Glove winner Roberto Alomar at second, the reliable Palmeiro at first and steady Brady Anderson in center, and you have one of baseball's best defensive teams.
"Those guys can play with the gloves," said Seattle Manager Lou Piniella, whose Mariners were eliminated by Baltimore in the division series. "That's the biggest difference I see in them this year."
Bordick and the Orioles drove that point home against the Mariners, playing four errorless games and stifling several potential rallies with their defense. In Game 3 of the division series, Bordick made two diving stops up the middle in consecutive innings, saving one run and maybe more.
"They just leathered everything," Seattle outfielder Jay Buhner said. "We put the ball in play and they caught everything. It was really unbelievable. And Bordick sucked up everything we hit up the middle. Their whole defense was outstanding, but he just killed us."
Bordick is not the flashiest shortstop in the league and his throwing arm is average, but his range, accuracy, dependability and work ethic have been welcome additions to the Orioles.
"He's the Oriole way," Manager Davey Johnson said, perhaps bestowing the ultimate compliment on Bordick. "He comes to the park at 2 p.m. every day, gets ready, takes about 200 ground balls, hits off the tee . . . he's a great worker."
Though signing Bordick seemed to be a logical move, the Orioles may have lucked into the shortstop. They considered signing Boston third baseman Tim Naehring last winter and leaving Ripken at short, but Naehring, who also spoke with the Indians, decided to re-sign with the Red Sox.
"The easy thing would have been to sign Naehring and keep Cal at short . . . but it seemed like Naehring got hurt a lot," Oriole General Manager Pat Gillick said. "We were looking for a guy like Ripken, who could play 150-155 games a year, and Bordick is right there all the time. I've always liked Bordick, he's a grinder, so I'm not surprised how he's done."
Bordick has provided an added bonus in the playoffs--some offense. A .236 hitter during the regular season, Bordick batted .400 with four runs and four runs batted in in four games against Seattle.
He also had a bases-loaded single in the sixth inning of Game 2 against the Indians, giving the Orioles a 4-2 lead in a game they eventually lost, 5-4.
The offensive surge seemed to be a continuation of a strong finish--Bordick batted .330 in September after batting .137 in August.
"I think he felt a little offensive pressure replacing Cal early in the season, but in the last six weeks he's hit around .300," Johnson said. "He's handling pitches he didn't handle before and he feels good about himself. When you combined those two things, you're going to keep hitting."