It's tempting to bury the Orioles, but this game twists too many ways, pitch by pitch, inning by inning, day by day. An outfielder crashes into the wall trying to make a leaping catch on a three-run homer. A two-run single bounces off a pitcher's foot and turns into an inning-ending double play.
That was just last night. Neither play went the Orioles' way, and the result was a 5-2 loss to the New York Yankees. It was a crushing defeat, but so much can change in the final 23 games. Milwaukee was three outs away from pulling within a game of second place last night. Didn't happen.
Crazy game -- but not one in which things unfold by chance. The beauty of a 162-game schedule is that the best team almost always wins. Trailing Toronto by 3 1/2 games, the Orioles certainly don't look like the best team. But they're better than what they're showing now, and that's what's so maddening.
Manager Johnny Oates seemed strangely serene last night, perhaps sensing, once and for all, that the Orioles are just a little bit short. Far be it from Oates to quit, but the fact is, his club must play near-perfect baseball to catch Toronto. Getting swept by the Yankees just doesn't cut it.
Now the Orioles play Milwaukee in seven of the next 10 games, and as Rick Sutcliffe says, we'll see what this team is made of. A second- or third-place finish after a 95-loss season obviously would be no disgrace. But this team has come too far to concede without taking its last, best shot.
A few weeks ago, Sutcliffe chastized his teammates for lacking intensity. Last night, Mark McLemore and Joe Orsulak made costly outs after failing to run hard to first base. Separate blunders, and excusable under most circumstances. But not now. Not with everything at stake.
The margin for error grows smaller each day, and suddenly the Orioles are out of sync. Playing at 6 Monday after flying all night from the West Coast didn't help, but that excuse was good for only one game. The next two were clinkers, too.
In the last 25 games, the Orioles have batted .237 and averaged 3.8 runs. Their offense is Brady and Devo and pray for another hero. Alas, Brady Anderson missed the middle game of this series, Mike Devereaux went 1-for-14 and Chris Hoiles hit two more homers with no one on base (16 of his 19 are solo shots).
Just one big hit from Cal Ripken would be manna from heaven. Just one angry swing from Glenn Davis would be reason to believe. But this late in the season, the Orioles can no longer expect such things. Their pitchers better start throwing shutouts, an ominous sign if there ever was one.
Where's the hope? In the game's inherent unpredictability. Take last night. In the fourth, Anderson thought he had a chance to catch Randy Velarde's towering three-run homer to left. Sutcliffe was so sure he would, he was five steps away from the dugout, anticipating the third out.
Anderson, though, mistimed his leap, hitting the wall with his shoulder instead of getting full extension. He was so upset by his failure to make the play, he watched it later on videotape, only taking comfort after seeing that the ball landed out of reach, in the third row.
McLemore could not rest as easy. With the bases loaded and one out in the bottom half of that inning, he scalded a ball through the middle for an apparent single. But the ball hit pitcher Bob Wickman's foot and took a crazy bounce toward shortstop Andy Stankiewicz.
The Yankees proceeded to turn an inning-ending double play, but only because the normally fleet McLemore was running half-speed. Did he think the ball would go through? Nope, he just screwed up. "I'm supposed to be running, period," he said, "especially if I don't know where it [the ball] is."
Orsulak made a similar mistake after hitting a sinking line drive to center with the Orioles trailing 3-2 in the sixth. "I was trying to beg it down," he said, rooting instead of running. Only after Bernie Williams had trouble recovering did Orsulak break into a sprint. He was thrown out trying to take second.
Base running coach Davey Lopes preaches the importance of running hard out of the batter's box -- "that's how you get your doubles, that's how you take advantage of plays." But neither he nor Oates saw fit to criticize McLemore and Orsulak, two of the biggest hustlers on a hustling team.
Lopes believed McLemore lost track of the number of outs, a mental lapse nearly every player experiences at some point in his career. Orsulak, on the other hand, got too caught up in the game, but finished 4-for-4. As Lopes said, "It's pretty difficult to get on a guy when 95 percent of the time he's busting his ass."
For all their troubles, the Orioles loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, bringing the potential winning run at the plate. But Yankees reliever Steve Farr struck out Randy Milligan on an inside breaking ball he meant to throw outside, then popped up Devereaux, a bases-loaded terror all season.
So close, yet so far. The story of the game, the story of the season. If the Orioles can't win this thing, so be it. But they owe it to themselves to go down swinging. Twenty-three games now. Twenty-three games, enough for this team to take its last, best shot.