Milligan's hit could be start of something

JOHN EISENBERG

June 18, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The pitch was a fastball, a little high, drifting toward the outside of the plate. Randy Milligan took an enormous swing, a Ruthian swing, and he missed, missed by a lot, swinging so hard he lost his balance and wound up on the other side of the plate. Not a pretty picture.

Standing across the plate, his face a portrait of disgust, Milligan turned to umpire John Shulock. "Was that a good pitch?" he asked. Shulock nodded. It was a little high, he said, but not outside. A strike. Milligan nodded, crossed the plate, took a practice swing, another, moved back into the batter's box.

The Orioles were down to their last strike. One more strike and the game would make perfect sense. The Twins would have done much to explain how they'd won 15 straight games, sacrificing, throwing out runners at the plate, building a lead out of twigs, playing the margin on a hot, humid night. The Orioles would have summed up their sad season in nine innings. Not enough anything.

One more strike. Milligan looked toward the mound, toward Rick Aguilera, the Twins' closer, one of the best in the league. His heart was pumping. Pumping too fast. "I had to call time and step back out of the box," Milligan said later. "I was too pumped up. I needed to tell myself to calm down."

It is something he has been telling himself for a while now, at least a week, as he has slowly begun to emerge from the slump that has engulfed him this season. He represents the Orioles' season in sum, does Milligan. Failed expectations. Hurt. Depressed. Starting to come around. Still in need of a big jump-start.

"When I hurt my wrist two weeks ago I told myself nothing else could happen wrong to me this year, so I might as well relax and stop trying to hit homers and just take the hits when they were there," Milligan said. "I'd been trying too hard to hit homers earlier. You try to tell yourself it's wrong, but my ego got in the way. I got a little selfish."

Then the pitch was coming. Another fastball from Aguilera. But a different one. Didn't drift outside. Didn't play the devil. Just flew right for the middle of the plate. As if it owned the sucker and no one could touch it. As if the world understood that the Twins were on a roll and could get away with throwing a fat pitch with two outs in the ninth.

And Milligan swung. And no splinters flew when his bat hit the ball. The contact was square, perfect, the ball flying away sharply, quickly, out over the shortstop. The left fielder and center fielder were running hard, harder, trying to make up the angle. Then it suddenly occurred to everyone in the stadium: The Twins' knack was gone. Just like that.

The ball landed in the alley and rolled to the wall and the game really was over then, the tying run already across the plate and the winning run rounding third. And suddenly the game made perfect nonsense. The Orioles had won for only the second time in 32 tries after trailing through eight innings. The Twins, who hadn't lost since May 31, were losers again.

"That was fun," Twins manager Tom Kelly managed to say. "Great game. What can I say? We had a lead and they made the big hit. I walked [Cal] Ripken [putting the winning run on base] in the ninth because you don't want him to beat you there. It was a good baseball decision, and I'd do it again. Give Milligan credit. He came up with the hit."

Milligan had become aware, as the ninth progressed, that the game probably would come to rest on his bat. Singles by David Segui and Brady Anderson. A perfect, first-pitch sacrifice bunt by Mike Devereaux. A sacrifice fly by Joe Orsulak, scoring a run. Ripken up, first base open. "I knew they'd walk Cal there," Milligan said. "He's hitting .360. You don't let him hit there. I wasn't insulted. How could I be?"

So it came down to Milligan. To say the prospect thrilled him would not be entirely correct, for his has been the kind of season that leaves you at the plate thinking defensively. He was under .200 for a month, then slowly higher, but without the run production expected. "When it got to two strikes [against Aguilera], you can't help thinking, 'I'm in trouble,' " Milligan said. "But I got a pitch to hit."

He did. The fastball came in oh so fat, and he swung and the ball flew away, and by the time he reached second base his arms were raised in the air in genuine celebration, the first of the year for the Orioles with any genuine substance behind it. The first real inkling of a jump-start.

The Twins sat in their clubhouse and ate spaghetti and sounded almost relieved the streak was over, as if they understood it was a fantasy, that it was time to get back to the ebb and flow that will compose the season and determine its fate. "I think a lot of guys in this room are relieved," Kirby Puckett said.

The Orioles just smiled. Their widest smiles of the season. "This could be the one," Milligan said, looking around at a 24-38 team. "We've been playing better, but we haven't been able to come from behind. That wears on you. Now we've shown we can do it, and against the hottest team in the league. That was fun. So maybe something good will come of it. Finally."

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