For three-quarters of the season, Johnny Oates has consistently downplayed the importance of a particular game or series.
But even the manager acknowledged there was special significance to the Orioles' 2-1 win in 10 innings over the Seattle Mariners yesterday at Camden Yards.
"It would not have been good," Oates said when asked the effect a three-game sweep by the Mariners would have had on his club. "I know I didn't enjoy getting up this morning [yesterday, after Wednesday night's 10-8 loss]."
The Orioles were fortunate that they went to bed last night not having to worry about waking up with a hangover from a five-game losing streak. They were able to survive a scare because of a gutty performance by starter Rick Sutcliffe, a magical escape act by Storm Davis and the blazing bat of Mike Devereaux, who drove in both runs.
They also chipped a game off the lead of the AL East division-leading Toronto Blue Jays, who were hammered by the Milwaukee Brewers, 16-3. The Orioles now trail the Blue Jays by three games, but are only 1 1/2 games ahead of the third-place Brewers.
For the better part of eight innings yesterday, the Orioles were on the short end of a 1-0 score. They had been stymied on one hit for 6 2/3 innings by Brian Fisher, who has won once in the major leagues since 1988, and temporarily shut down by left-handed reliever Russ Swan.
The prospect of avoiding a three-game sweep by the Mariners, who have won 10 of the past 11 series between them, appeared remote until Devereaux provided a lease on victory in the eighth. Tim Hulett opened with a single and moved to second on Mark McLemore's sacrifice.
Brady Anderson, whose spotlight time would come later, struck out for the second out. In that spot Seattle manager Bill Plummer summoned right-hander Jeff Nelson, a Catonsville native who earned a save against the Orioles Tuesday night.
Devereaux and Nelson engaged in a duel as the count went to 3-2. After fouling off a couple of breaking balls, Devereaux hit a drive 20 feet inside the right-field line to drive in the tying run.
Cal Ripken grounded out to end that inning, and the Orioles did not score after loading the bases on three walks in the ninth -- but what happened in between was as important as anything that occurred all game.
Davis, who replaced Sutcliffe in the eighth inning, gave up an infield hit to Omar Vizquel and a full-count, hit-and-run single to Edgar Martinez with one out in the ninth. That brought Ken Griffey to the plate. The last time these two paired off the result was a three-run homer that iced Tuesday night's 8-3 win.
The memory of that blow was not forgotten by Davis. "I had a base [second] open," Davis said, "so I was pitching him up and in, down and away."
Griffey swung his way to a full count before accepting a walk to load the bases. Left-handed hitting Tino Martinez was next.
"I just concentrated on the left knee [of catcher Chris Hoiles]," said Davis.
Martinez hit a one-hopper right back to Davis, who started a 1-2-3 double-play to get out of the inning. An inning later he retired three straight batters after Jay Buhner opened with a single to left.
In the bottom of the 10th Anderson and Devereaux took over, pinning a quick loss on Mike Schooler, who replaced Nelson to start the inning. Anderson laced a triple into the right-field corner, and Devereaux lofted a sacrifice fly to left field, accounting for his 82nd RBI.
Despite the late-inning heroics of Devereaux, the Orioles would not have been in a position to win had it not been for the survival skills of Sutcliffe. He scattered eight hits and four walks, and the Mariners stranded nine runners during his stay.
"Dr. Houdini," as he was described by his manager, lasted until there were two out in the eighth and Pete O'Brien was announced to pinch-hit for John Moses. It was the kind of situation Oates has entrusted to Sutcliffe throughout the season, and Sutcliffe made a mild attempt to talk his way out of an early shower.
"I said, 'You've given me a lot of good pitches and good innings, but I've got a fresh guy out there who's ready,' " Oates related his conversation on the mound.
"You know why this guy wasn't in the lineup don't you?" Sutcliffe asked.
"I thought maybe he [Sutcliffe] knew something I didn't know, like maybe O'Brien was hurt," Oates said.
"I've had pretty good success against him," Sutcliffe told Oates, to his surprise.
"I told him, 'The guy [O'Brien] is 7-for-17, .412 against you,' and he just handed me the ball and walked off the mound. I'm insulted he didn't think I would know that," Oates said, jokingly.