Last-ditch bid brewing for Orioles Sweep changes face of Milwaukee series

September 10, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

Maybe if today's day off had come on Monday, when the Orioles returned from their hugely successful West Coast trip, things might be different.

Perhaps with a day to recoup their energies after a cross-country flight, the Orioles might have faced the New York Yankees with the verve and energy required of a pennant contender facing a team so far out of the race they need a road map to find it.

But the day off is today, and instead of meeting the Milwaukee Brewers in a weekend series with first place on the line, the Orioles, after a 5-2 loss to New York last night, will be gasping to stay out of third.

"They [the Brewers] are going to come in here hungry and we have to get that concentration back from that West Coast trip," pitcher Rick Sutcliffe said after allowing five runs in 7 2/3 innings to lose his first game in eight starts. "Those guys are going to be ready to fight and we'd better be ready to go toe-to-toe."

Last Saturday, the Orioles were just a half-game out of first place, and this weekend's three-game set with Milwaukee looked to be, at worst, the best chance to knock the Brewers out and make the AL East race a two-team affair and, at best, an opportunity to perhaps solidify a hold on first.

Instead, after Toronto's 1-0 win over Kansas City last night, which dropped the Orioles 3 1/2 games off the pace, and the Brewers' 5-4 loss to Cleveland, that sent them 5 1/2 games off the lead, both teams may exit this weekend's showdown out of the running.

"We have to look at it that the Blue Jays aren't going to lose it. Somebody's going to have to catch them and I hope it's us," said outfielder Brady Anderson, who stole his 50th and 51st bases of the year.

The Brewers, who lead the league in steals, will bring three strong right-handed starters, Bill Wegman (12-12, 3.33), Jaime Navarro (14-11, 3.50) and Cal Eldred (7-1, 1.30) in to face Mike Mussina (14-5, 2.74), Craig Lefferts (0-1, 4.50) and Ben McDonald (12-10, 4.30).

In retrospect, last night's game was probably the Orioles' best chance to get a win in the Yankees series, given the luck of playing less than 18 hours after a long flight on Monday and the 16-4 bludgeoning they took on Tuesday, where nothing short of divine intervention would have helped.

Sutcliffe, who pitched grittily as usual, made three mistakes all night, but saw all three land over the fences.

Still, the Orioles had plenty of opportunities to strike back, but squandered virtually all of them, through strange base running or just plain weird fortune.

"We had some chances tonight, but a combination of hitting defense and luck got us. But you have to make your own breaks," said manager Johnny Oates.

The first of Sutcliffe's mistakes, a three-run shot to Randy Velarde in the fourth, was the most costly.

After yielding a leadoff double to Roberto Kelly and a one-out walk to Danny Tartabull, it appeared that Sutcliffe would get out of the jam unscathed, especially after Mel Hall, who came in with a career .833 batting average against Sutcliffe, popped to Cal Ripken.

Instead, Velarde launched a fly to left that Sutcliffe thought was a routine deep drive that would be caught.

"I could throw that same pitch to Velarde again and it's a pop-up. If you watch the replay, I let out a big sigh of relief," said Sutcliffe.

Instead, the ball kept carrying, and Anderson, who has robbed a number of hitters of home runs this season with leaping catches, drifted back to do the same, but never got the chance.

"I just kept drifting back, but as soon as I jumped, my shoulder just jumped into the wall, and my feet never left the ground," said Anderson.

So, the Orioles were down 3-0, but it was early and there was no sense of urgency.

Indeed, in the bottom of the inning, the Orioles came right back. With one out, Chris Hoiles walked and Joe Orsulak, who went 4-for-4, got an infield single to place runners on first and second.

Then came the bad luck. Mark McLemore, who was hitting .348 with runners in scoring position, hit a grounder up the middle that looked as if it would bounce through into center and either score Hoiles or load the bases.

Instead, it bounced off Yankees starter Bob Wickman's foot to shortstop Andy Stankiewicz, who started a double play to end the inning.

In the seventh, the Orioles, who by then trailed 3-2, again got runners to first and second with one out, but Mike Devereaux, the team leader in RBI, grounded into a double play.

The Yankees immediately capitalized, with back-to-back homers from Don Mattingly and Tartabull that gave New York a 5-2 lead.

"The pitch to Mattingly was just a mistake, a blatant mistake," said Sutcliffe. "That's the last thing you need to happen in that situation."

But there was still a chance to erase it in the ninth, when the Orioles, facing New York closer Steve Farr, loaded the bases with one out and Randy Milligan and Devereaux coming to the plate, representing the winning run.

Milligan got behind in the count with two strikes, then worked the count to 3-2. Farr struck him out swinging on a nasty curve, then got Devereaux to pop out into the Yankees dugout to end the game.

So, there are just 23 games remaining on the schedule, one more game between the Orioles and first place, and a very tough opponent coming in.

For many, it's a time of panic, but the manager remains calm.

"It gets tougher with each passing day, but this ballclub has battled all year and I see no reason why they won't continue," said Oates.

If the pennant chase is to continue, Oates had better be right.

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