Johnny Oates had a nice three-year run as manager in Baltimore. He took over a team that had a couple subpar years in 1990 and 1991, with Cal Ripken’s ‘91 MVP campaign being the only bright spot. Oates won more games than he lost in each of his three seasons and the 1992 Baltimore Orioles were the team that started the run.
The Orioles moved to address their pitching in the offseason. They signed 36-year-old Rick Sutcliffe to help the rotation. And they dealt a couple prospects to the Yankees in exchange for Alan Mills, who had a strong year in the bullpen. They joined a staff that had the most heralded young pitcher in baseball, Ben McDonald, ready to emerge on the big league level.
McDonald had a respectable year in ‘92. He pitched 227 innings, won 13 games and finished with a 4.24 ERA. Sutcliffe did what he was asked to do—while the 4.47 ERA might have been high, he was regular at taking his turn with 36 starts and won 16 games.
But the biggest splash wasn’t made by the highly touted prospect or the new free agent. Baltimore’s best pitcher proved to be 23-year-old Mike Mussina. He went 18-5, posted a 2.54 ERA, logged 241 innings, finished fourth in the Cy Young voting and got a stellar 18-year career off and running.
Gregg Olson anchored the bullpen with 36 saves and a 2.05 ERA, and he had quality help in front of him. Mills won 10 games and pitched over 100 innings. Todd Frowirth also worked over 100 innings and his ERA was 2.46. Storm Davis, a former starter, who now did most of his work in relief, went 7-3 with a 3.34 ERA. The bullpen was a big reason the Orioles finished with the fifth-best ERA in the American League.
Baltimore got a good year offensively from catcher Chris Hoiles, who posted a stat line of .384 on-base percentage/.506 slugging percentage. Brady Anderson was a productive outfielder at .373/.440. Oates got respectable, if not great years, from a range of players that included first baseman Randy Milligan, third baseman Leo Gomez and centerfielder Mike Devereaux.
It might have been enough to produce a good offense, but the Orioles were let down by the most unlikely of people—Cal Ripken Jr. had an off-year at the plate, with a meager .323/.366 stat line. Of course he played all 162 games and was reliable, but the loss of his usual numbers was the biggest reason Baltimore only had the 8th-best offense in the American League and why their pennant push ultimately came up short.
The Oriole season was marked by steadiness, as they rarely got either too hot or too cold. An early high point in April came when they won seven straight over the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, averaging seven runs a night during that stretch. In May, the Birds went on a 11-4 run against teams from the AL West.
On the flip side, they were swept by the Toronto Blue Jays and Oakland A’s, the two best teams in the AL in 1992. But on Memorial Day, Baltimore’s 26-16 record was the best in the majors and they led the favored Blue Jays by a half-game in the AL East.
Baltimore was able to get series wins over Toronto and Oakland in June as they continued to play good baseball and ran neck-and-neck with the Blue Jays. But right before the All-Star break, the Orioles lost five of seven games to the defending World Series champion Minnesota Twins. The mini-skid let Toronto widen the lead to four games at the break.
Consistency continued to define Baltimore’s play through August and in the days leading up to Labor Day, they made an impressive statement out west. Seven wins on a nine-game trip had them within a game and a half of Toronto. The Birds were coming home and in position to pull an upset in the September stretch drive.
But just as quickly, the worm turned. They lost three straight to the Yankees. The Milwaukee Brewers were up next and coming on strong as a third horse in the AL East. Here’s where we should note that the Brewers were in the American League prior to 1998, the Eastern Division prior to the realignment of 1994 and that we were still a couple years from the existence of the wild-card. It was winner-take-all in this race.
Mussina took the ball on Friday night and delivered a complete-game six-hitter, winning 3-2. But the Oriole offense went into hiding and scored just one run the rest of the weekend, losing both games. They were now five games out.
Baltimore clipped the deficit back to three and made a return trip to Milwaukee the following weekend for a four-game set. Sutcliffe pitched the Friday opener…and got blasted, 12-4. Two more losses followed. A win in the Monday wraparound game was too little too late. It was the Brewers, not the Orioles, who would chase the Blue Jays to the final weekend of the season. And it was the Jays who ultimately won the World Series.
It was still a solid year in Baltimore. They won 89 games and it was fifth-best in the American League. By the standards of today, 1992 was a playoff-caliber season for the Orioles.