The weight of what looked like a lost weekend began to wear down the Orioles yesterday. There was Friday night's bases-loaded triple play during an excruciating 13-inning loss to the Cleveland Indians, and Saturday night's one-hitter by Charles Nagy.
By the seventh inning yesterday, the Orioles had hit the wall. Manager Johnny Oates could sense it in the dugout. The players could feel it on the field. Even the sellout crowd of 43,742 at Camden Yards seemed a bit out of sync.
After taking a lead on Tim Hulett's single in the fourth, after watching only one more good scoring opportunity pass quietly in the sixth, after seeing the Indians tie the score in the seventh, the Orioles knocked down the wall.
Cal Ripken's one-out single to left, with the bases loaded and the Indians infield drawn in, gave the Orioles a dramatic 3-2 victory in 10 innings and a much-needed psychological lift going into its pivotal four-game series that begins tonight in Toronto.
"You think about all the wins being the same and all the losses being the same, but this is one I'm going to enjoy a little bit more," said Oates, whose team pulled to within two games of first-place Toronto, which lost in Detroit yesterday, 9-2. "Hopefully this will give us a little momentum going up north."
There were a few smiles around the clubhouse, but more evident was the sense of relief. The Orioles knew how devastating a three-game sweep at home to the rapidly improving, but still last-place Indians might have been in light of the Blue Jays losing three of four to the Tigers.
"It's time for the guys to start stepping up," said starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, directing his comments to the team's veterans. "Every time I look at the Toronto box scores, [Jack] Morris is doing something, or [Dave] Winfield is driving in the winning run. I've been struggling. This is no time for us to struggle."
Sutcliffe, who took more than a month before notching his 150th career victory last week, struggled a bit yesterday. After giving up a run in the first, Sutcliffe slogged through six innings before giving way to Storm Davis with one out and two on in the seventh. The Orioles led 2-1 at the time.
Davis immediately gave up a single to right by Thomas Howard, which scored Mark Lewis and tied the game. But Davis retired 11 of the last 12 Indians he faced to earn the victory.
"You don't want to give a team any more chances," said Davis (4-2). "You've got to be aggressive. If you kick yourself, you're going to make mistakes."
The Orioles didn't give the Indians any more chances to become only the second team to sweep them at Camden Yards. Then in the 10th, Mark McLemore led off with a single to right off Ted Power, Cleveland's third pitcher. Jeff Tackett bunted McLemore to second.
Suddenly, things got interesting. With left-hander Derek Lilliquist replacing right-hander Power, leadoff hitter Brady Anderson punched a grounder inches past the Cleveland pitcher. McLemore, thinking Lilliquist had a chance to grab it, raced back to second. Anderson beat second baseman Carlos Baerga's throw.
"If you look at the replay, he [Lilliquist] missed it by this much," Oates said, holding two fingers a couple of inches apart. "I'd rather him [McLemore] stay there where he's still in scoring position."
Out went Lilliquist. In came Eric Plunk, the Indians' fifth pitcher. After getting a strike on Mike Devereaux, Plunk threw four straight balls. With the bases loaded, with the crowd suddenly awake, with the infield and outfield drawn in, up came Ripken. He had one softly hit single in four previous at-bats yesterday, and was 3-for-23 against Plunk.
Said Oates, "That's who we would want up. The numbers said 3 of 23, but he came up big time."
How big? Big enough to knock down a wall.