Minus a bender, Olson saves a road trip

JOHN EISENBERG

August 03, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOSTON -- He was standing to the right side of the mound, one pitch from a certified catastrophe. The home fans were on their feet and shouting at Fenway Park, tingle-toed at the prospect of a ninth-inning win.

"You have really gotten yourself into one this time," Gregg Olson said to himself, staring at the ball in his right hand and trying to summon the stomach to get back up there and throw a pitch everyone knew was coming.

Not his best pitch, either. Not one of the famous Olson curveballs. He had to throw a fastball this time. There was no choice: a fastball to the Red Sox's Tom Brunansky, one of the league's best fastball hitters.

"I could have told him what I was going to throw," Olson said, "and he would have said, 'Yeah, I know.' "

Yeah, he knew, and the bases were loaded with Red Sox and the count was 3-1 and the Orioles were up one run. Only the success of an entire road trip was at stake.

Even for closers, who routinely untie the girl just before the train rolls by, this was hairy. This was holding the mental health of the entire team in your hand. With Brunansky standing there waiting for your second-best pitch.

"I'm just glad I'm not Olson," manager Johnny Oates said later.

Ball four would have meant a 2-2 tie, a blown lead and very possibly a loss, giving the Orioles a 4-3 record on this weeklong trip against the faltering Sox and Yankees -- a trip offering the Orioles a real chance to escape their three-month rut of .500 ball and jump-start a run at the Blue Jays.

"A make-or-break trip, in a way," Olson said.

A 5-2 record sounded better; it was certainly what the team needed. But first, there was this little problem of Olson having to throw his fastball to Brunansky.

It had come to that because Olson walked a batter and allowed a single, and because second baseman Bill Ripken did not get anyone out on a double-play ball, failing to tag the runner going to second and throwing too late to get the runner at first -- loading the bases with one out.

"You see the double-play ball and you think maybe the game is over," Olson said, "but then in an instant the game is almost over and you're going to lose.

"It was one of those days you had to be a little nuts to do this."

Olson gathered himself and struck out Phil Plantier for the second out, but then came Brunansky and Olson threw three bad pitches and fell behind in the count, 3-1. He was in the crucible now.

A curve, even a Cooperstown curve such as Olson's, was just too unsafe. The sharp spinning of the ball makes it harder to control. By throwing a fastball, which is straight and easier to control, Olson probably would not walk the batter and give up the run. But Brunansky would know what was coming, which is a killer in the major leagues. A pitcher can't live more dangerously.

The full house was roaring now, stomping on the concrete stands. The afternoon was warm, the sky a crystalline blue. Olson stood by the mound, staring at the ball in his hands, deaf to the noise. Helplessly hoping.

"All I could do," he said, "was say, "Here's my fastball, see what you can do.' "

His fastball is not exactly slack, of course. It travels close to 90 mph, if not quite, and has a rising tendency that makes it difficult to hit. It fails only in comparison with his curve.

So he threw one and Brunansky swung mightily, a home run swing. The ball flew back into the stands behind the plate, a foul, strike two, filling the count. The umpire threw Olson another ball. The crowd began chanting "Bru-no, Bru-no!" -- Brunansky's nickname. Olson stood by the mound, staring at the new ball.

"I thought about throwing the curveball, I really did," he said. "But there was just no way. I would have killed myself. If I had thrown one and frozen him with it, but still missed it for ball four, I would have killed myself. I would have second-guessed that one for the rest of the season."

So he threw another fastball and Brunansky fouled it away again, the ball settling into the stands behind first base. Then: another new ball from the ump, another round of "Bru-no" cheers gathering, and behind the plate, catcher Jeff Tackett getting into his crouch and again putting one finger down against his leg. Another fastball coming.

"His curve is the greatest," Tackett said, "But he's getting more confident with that fastball."

This one flew over the outside part of the plate -- "a strike," Tackett said -- and Brunansky reached out for it and reached a little too far and got jammed as he swung. The ball flew out toward center field, toward Mike Devereaux, who ran back a few steps and stopped in the late-afternoon sunshine. Olson was celebrating even before the ball landed in Devereaux's glove.

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