Mark McGwire has the simplest of all reasons why some players hit better against certain teams.
"Everybody has a team he likes to face," the Oakland A's slugging first baseman said after igniting last night's 8-4 win over the Orioles with a three-run homer in the first inning.
Some hitters, of course, have more favorite teams than others. Among the "others" during his playing days was Orioles manager John Oates.
Having just endured successive weekends against another noted Oriole basher, Chicago's Frank Thomas, Oates was asked if he had any theories about particular matchups between a particular hitter and team.
He shook his head in semi-bewilderment. "The only thing I can tell you is that I know why I hit more against one club than any other," said Oates, a career .250 hitter over 10 seasons, mostly in the National League.
"I hit 100 points higher against the St. Louis Cardinals because I knew the catcher and I could peek and see where he was setting up. I hit off the catcher, not the pitcher."
Suffice it to say that hasn't been the reason for McGwire's success here. The Orioles basically have a new catcher, Chris Hoiles, pitcher Rick Sutcliffe was facing McGwire for the first time in a regular-season game -- and, for good measure, last night they threw in a new ballpark.
The results, however, were all too familiar. In 64 career games against the Orioles, McGwire has now hit 22 home runs and driven in 61 runs.
"You guys know all the stats," said McGwire. "I really don't pay attention to them. I pay more attention to parks -- the lighting, the batter's box. They have good lighting here and a nice batter's box."
And early last night there was also a comfortable landing area in the left-centerfield seats. "I thought it was a sacrifice fly," admitted McGwire, "but they tell me that's the part of the park where the ball's been carrying."
McGwire is a known fly-ball power hitter, so much so that many of his home runs look like routine high flies -- when they leave the bat.
"I think it surprised him [McGwire] when it carried that much," said A's manager Tony La Russa. "I don't think it would have gone that far later in the game, when it got cooler -- whether it would have gone out or not, I don't know.
"But he's a fly-ball hitter, he's strong and he gets good carry," said La Russa.
Enough last night to help carry the Orioles to their second straight loss, the first time that's happened since April 26-27 (in New York and Minnesota). But not enough to dislodge the Orioles from first place, because the Toronto Blue Jays had already lost for the fourth straight time at home and remained a half-game back in the AL East.
On a night of missed opportunities, the best thing that happened for the Orioles turned out to be the performance of Sutcliffe. Any time the good news is a starting pitcher being charged with eight earned runs in 6 1/3 innings, it has to be a long night -- and it was, in every sense of the word.
Even McGwire admitted as much. "We've got to stop playing these long games," he said of the three-hour, 38-minute contest. "It's ridiculous."
After giving up six runs in the first two innings, Sutcliffe was able to shut down the A's until the seventh -- which not only kept the Orioles in the game, but preserved the relief corps as well.
"Four scoreless innings -- that's the best thing about this one," said Oates. "It saved the bullpen. It was a night of chances.
"We had a chance to make a double play in the first inning and didn't. And we had chances to score all night and didn't. We had opportunities and didn't take advantage -- and they did."
The missed double-play opportunity Oates referred to immediately preceded McGwire's home run, turning a potential scoreless inning into a four-run deficit. Second baseman Mark McLemore failed to come up with Harold Baines' hard shot a few feet to his right, and it went for a run-scoring single.
"I wouldn't want to get hit by that ball, he hit it well," said Oates, "but in the big leagues you expect to make that play. But you can't take anything away from him [McLemore], because he's done a good job for us."
In the second inning Rickey Henderson tucked a two-run homer into the leftfield corner that left no doubt about its authenticity. It was at that point that the Orioles and Sutcliffe were flirting with disaster.
"Too many runs too early in the game," said Sutcliffe (5-3), who lost at home for the first time in four decisions. "I struggled mainly with location."
After Henderson's home run, the Orioles struck for three runs in their half of the inning. They had chances to do more damage in that inning and four of the next five, but could manage only one more run. That came after the A's had bumped their lead to 8-3 on run-scoring singles by Jose Canseco and Baines after Sutcliffe was replaced by Todd Frohwirth in the seventh.
Cal Ripken was called out on strikes to end the second with runners on first and third and again with one out and two on in the fourth, when Sam Horn made his only contact of the night for a pop fly to end the inning.
Mike Devereaux led off the fifth with a double, but advanced only to third as Chris Hoiles, Joe Orsulak and David Segui, who drove in the Orioles' first two runs with a single, went out routinely.
Before the long night concluded, the Orioles stranded 10 runners in seven innings before relievers Jeff Parrett, Rick Honeycutt and Goose Gossage ended the suspense, and the agony, by retiring the last seven hitters.