CLEVELAND -- There was very little that went right for the Orioles here last night -- until they did something that appeared wrong.
If that sounds like a contradiction, then consider that the pivotal play in the 6-5 win over the Cleveland Indians was a wild pitch thrown by Orioles reliever Storm Davis.
What that errant toss did was remove any doubt about strategy. Considering what had already transpired that was a very big plus.
Although he'd said before the game that Gregg Olson needed work, Orioles manager John Oates let his relief ace remain in the bullpen while the Indians got three straight hits to tie the game in the eighth inning. It was a non-move predicated on the future rather than the present.
Randy Milligan eventually rendered all of the second-guesses useless by hitting a leadoff home run in the ninth inning to end three days of frustration for the Orioles.
But back to the wild pitch that paid off so handsomely for Davis (3-2) and the Orioles. Three straight hits by Thomas Howard, Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle, the last two of the "clinker" variety, placed the game in serious jeopardy for at least the third time.
With runners on first and third, Davis was confronted by Paul Sorrento, a dangerous lefthanded hitter best known to date for getting the first hit, and the first home run, at Camden Yards. The situation presented a lot of possibilities -- none very attractive for the Orioles.
With the tying run already in, Olson was a non-factor. Having decided against bringing the righthander in to face Belle when he had a lead with one out, Oates wasn't going to use him in a tie game. And with Mike Flanagan struggling with his control, there was no temptation to bring in a lefthander, so Oates was committed to Davis.
Cagey veteran that he is, Davis uncorked a wild pitch just far enough to allow Belle to reach second, and short enough to keep Baerga from scoring.
"Believe me I thought about that right after I threw the ball," said Davis. "Not that I was trying to throw a wild pitch, but I knew it removed one possibility [pitching to Sorrento]. I looked into the dugout, knowing we'd put him on [with an intentional walk]."
That, of course, had always been a possibility, but one Oates decided against -- until the wild pitch. "If I was Don Zimmer, I would've walked him right away," said Oates. "But I'm not Zim yet.
"Chuck Tanner [former big-league manager with four teams] would've done it, too. Maybe when I've had success for six or seven years like those guys, I'll do it too. I thought about it, but I know some pitchers don't like to walk the bases full, and I didn't want to take the chance."
Once Davis threw the wild pitch, the decision was as academic as it was automatic. Sorrento trotted to first base and, presto, Glenallen Hill delivered a double-play ball faster than you could get a burger at a fast-food palace. His two-hopper to third baseman Leo Gomez resulted in a routine home to first rally-killer.
"I wasn't going to give him [Sorrento] a good pitch," said Davis. "It's not that I wanted to face Hill, but you don't want to face a lefthanded hitter either. I think about some things that have been said to me over the years -- and sometimes when something like that [the wild pitch] happens, it just eliminates another possibility."
Fortunately, thanks to Milligan's sixth homer of the year, a drive over the right-centerfield fence off reliever Dennis Cook (1-5), Olson got his needed one inning of work. And he brought a semblance of order to a game that was far from artistic, despite a harmless two-out walk to Sandy Alomar.
It was the 18th straight save for Olson since his only failure, April 10 at Toronto. He hasn't allowed a run in his last 12 appearances, or a hit in his last six.
"He's as close to 1989 as I've seen him," said Oates. "His curveball has that real good bite to it and his velocity is as good as ever."
Olson doesn't know whether the comparison is more appropriate to 1989 than to 1990 -- "that was my best year," he said -- but admits to the feeling that the game is over when he enters with a lead.
"Confidence breeds success," he said. "And right now I just have that feeling that when I go in, the game is over."
Which is why he got very cranky with himself when he walked Alomar on a 3-and-2 curveball that was almost in another area code when it bounced. "I at least wanted to get it reasonably close," said Olson, who berated himself on the mound. "If I get it close, I might get a call, or he might swing at it -- but that pitch had no chance."
But the game was immediately put out of its misery when catcher Chris Hoiles made an excellent play on Kenny Lofton's tapper 15 feet in front of the plate. Coming on the heels of Sunday's 7-4 loss in Detroit, after they had blown a 4-1 lead, the win was a vital one for the Orioles.
Starter Rick Sutcliffe, who scattered 11 hits in 6 1/3 innings in quest of his 10th win, and left with a 5-2 lead, went so far as to call it a "must win."
On a night that the Indians played like the Bad News Bears, and Sutcliffe pitched like Houdini, the Orioles could hardly have planned more opportunities. But, like the day before, they always came one swing away from breaking the game open.
The Indians committed three errors, had three other bobbles, plus a dropkick (by Sorrento after a single by Brady Anderson), yet not one unearned run was marked against their ledger. Meanwhile, in successive innings, Sutcliffe had runners on first and third twice and the bases loaded -- each time with nobody out.
He managed to walk away from that mess with only two runs allowed. If ever his philosophy of no walks and keeping the ball in the park was to be tested, this was Exhibit A. Fortunately the Indians (14 singles and one double) were the perfect team for the occasion.