In any given season, a team is guaranteed to win one-third of its games and to lose another third, Orioles manager Johnny Oates says. The outcome of a club's year is determined by what happens in the other third.
Before the ninth inning, Oates said, he wasn't sure into what category Thursday night's dramatic, 5-4 win over the Minnesota Twins fit.
"Deep in my heart, I always have hope," Oates said. "Maybe it's my competitive nature. I don't even like for my kids to beat me at Monopoly. I just know, in the game of baseball, there's no time limit and you are never out of it until the last out."
In the process of a four-run rally in the ninth, Oates pushed just about every managerial button at his disposal, playing the percentages to get the right batters to the plate at the right time and getting his fastest runners on the base paths.
"That ninth inning is what a manager lives for," said Oates. "The bottom line, though, is that those guys came through. If they don't do it, then all the button-pushing in the world doesn't matter."
True, but Oates was still able to maneuver the situation to his advantage, and came out of it with one of the most memorable wins in the "Orioles Magic" era.
"You've got the whole inning mapped out," said Oates. "You know what you want to do in every situation."
Oates caught a couple of breaks that helped with his moves. First, Tim Hulett led off the eighth with a double, only to be stranded at second by three straight ground outs.
If another hitter had come to the plate, Oates said he would have pinch hit Sam Horn for Glenn Davis, who was 0-for-5 since returning from the disabled list earlier this week.
Instead, Davis led off the ninth and singled to right when Minnesota outfielder Jarvis Brown, a defensive replacement, broke back on a bloop hit.
The other break for the Orioles came when Twins manager Tom Kelly lifted reliever Carl Willis for Rick Aguilera. The Baltimore regulars at the time were batting .281 against Aguilera, and virtually all of the scheduled batters in the ninth had recent success against the Minnesota closer.
After Davis' hit, Milligan doubled to right, moving Davis to third. Then David Segui, who had hit a home run off Aguilera last year, slapped a single to left, scoring Davis.
Oates made the first of his moves, pinch running Mark McLemore for Segui. Even though McLemore is batting .333, the manager said he wanted the speedy second baseman's legs more than his bat in that situation.
Up next was Horn, to hit for Bill Ripken. After taking a mighty cut at the first pitch, Horn worked the count full, then hit a broken-bat single to left-center, driving in Milligan to cut the lead to 4-3.
A few things paid off for Oates on that play. McLemore aggressively took third, and Horn, who is not the swiftest of runners, took second on Shane Mack's throw to third.
"If Mac gets thrown out at third, we've got to have Sam at second," said Oates. "Fortunately, we got both of them."
With left-handed hitters Joe Orsulak and Chito Martinez on the bench, Oates had to choose who would run for Horn and who would bat for Hulett.
"Chito was a bit more disciplined at the plate than Joe was, so I thought we'd run Joe and have Chito hit," said Oates.
Considering that Martinez had just two hits in 22 previous at-bats, that move might have raised eyebrows, but Martinez had collected all three RBI this season on bases-loaded walks.
After Brady Anderson was walked intentionally to load the bases, Martinez batted.
He didn't walk, but he tapped back to second, where Chuck Knoblauch's angle to the plate was blocked by Aguilera, and McLemore scored the tying run.
From there, the decisions were out of Oates' hands. Cal Ripken was walked intentionally and Aguilera threw a 1-2 wild pitch to Mike Devereaux, scoring Orsulak with the
For all the managerial moves he made, Oates was willing to throw one more piece of praise on a forgotten man, reliever Todd Frohwirth, who pitched 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief after starter Rick Sutcliffe left in the fifth.
"I've said at least twice that the most overlooked player on any team is the long reliever, because he doesn't get many wins, but he keeps you in ballgames," said Oates.
And, ultimately, the chess match was won by a manager who lives for the opportunity to pull off the big move.
"That's why you get into managing. That's the reason you want to get into those positions, for innings like that," said Oates, with a big smile.
Here are five of the more memorable comebacks during the "Orioles Magic" era:
June 22, 1979
The comeback that started "Orioles Magic," in which third baseman Doug DeCinces hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to cap a three run rally to beat Detroit, 5-4.
August 24, 1983