Under normal circumstances, a home run by Cal Ripken would hardly be considered out of the ordinary. But these are hardly normal times, which is why the All-Star shortstop's 11th home run of the year almost stopped the show last night at Camden Yards.
Although Rick Sutcliffe flirted with perfection for almost five innings, and Brady Anderson contributed his 19th homer of the year, it was Ripken's sixth-inning blast that dominated discussion of the Orioles' 2-1 win over the Kansas City Royals.
That the Toronto Blue Jays lost to the Cleveland Indians and Jose Mesa, 2-1, to bring the Orioles within four games of first place just made it that much nicer.
Ripken is one of only eight players in history to hit 20 or more home runs in each of their first 10 years in the major leagues. But he had gone 73 games and 291 at-bats without connecting before last night.
Not since June 23, when he hit two in Milwaukee, had Ripken hit a home run. Four days before that, against the Yankees, was Ripken's last homer at home.
Even if it was a long time coming, Ripken's homer was genuinely appreciated. He got a tremendous ovation from the crowd, and a spontaneous welcome in the dugout.
"I would say, in proportion, the crowd's response was about the same as the one in the dugout," said manager Johnny Oates. "I know I was happy, not just for the home run -- but for the run."
At the time, the Orioles were nursing a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Anderson's poke three innings earlier, also off Royals starter Rick Reed (2-7). In the long run, Ripken breaking his drought might prove more important, but last night the second run carried the most significance.
"It felt good to go out and get some level of consistency," said Ripken, who went 3-for-3 for the evening. "Striking the ball well three times -- I've done that before, but I wasn't getting any hits."
Oates can only hope that Ripken's sudden outburst (he was on a 3-for-29 skid during the past eight games) signals a resurgence of the Orioles' offense. "Let's hope he's back," said Oates. "He had three pretty good at-bats and got the home run out of the way.
"He's hit the ball hard at times the past few weeks, but he's also had some bad swings. He's had just enough good swings to tease you, but when he was hitting the ball hard, it was right at someone. Tonight he hit three balls hard that weren't at anyone."
However, as vital as Ripken's homer and the one hit by Anderson were, last night's win wouldn't have been possible without another brilliant performance by Sutcliffe (16-12). The veteran right-hander allowed only two hits in 7 1/3 innings before being replaced by Todd Frohwirth when the Royals mounted their first serious threat in the eighth inning.
"It's getting to be routine, isn't it?" Oates replied when asked about Sutcliffe's performance. "He just goes out there and puts up zeros."
Sutcliffe still had nothing but zeros on the scoreboard when Oates decided to remove him in the eighth inning, with two runners on base and one out. The manager later revealed he didn't make up his mind until after he confronted Sutcliffe on the mound.
"I didn't get the real positive 'I'm fine' that I usually get," said Oates. "He had twisted his knee a little on a play at first [the inning before].
"I told Bos [pitching coach Dick Bosman] before I went out there if I didn't get the answers I was looking for that Frohwirth was in -- and to get [Gregg] Olson up behind [left-hander Jim] Poole."
Frohwirth gave up a run-scoring single to pinch hitter Mike Macfarlane to make it 2-1, but he got Gregg Jefferies to hit into a double play to end the inning. He then turned matters over to Olson, who recorded his 33rd save -- but not before the Royals mounted a two-out threat in the ninth inning.
A walk to Jim Eisenreich and a bouncing single by Brent Mayne had the tying run on third when Ripken made a diving catch of Kevin Koslofski's line drive to end the game.
The win was only the second in the past eight games for the Orioles.
In the first six games of the homestand, the Orioles had scored only 12 runs, so Sutcliffe didn't figure to have much margin for error. For 4 2/3 innings, he didn't need any.
While the Orioles were sniping at Reed with minimal results, Sutcliffe was perfect until there were two outs in the fifth inning. He retired the first 14 Royals before Koslofski singled sharply to right. A stolen base and a walk to Jeff Conine presented Sutcliffe with his first threat, but Curtis Wilkerson bounced into a force out to end the inning.
Meanwhile, Ripken, who singled and doubled in his first two at-bats, reached third with one out in the second and fourth innings, but was stranded both times.
Then, in the sixth inning, came the thunder that had been absent from Oriole Park for almost three months.
After Mike Devereaux had opened with a looping single to center and was picked off first, Glenn Davis struck out. Ripken got behind, 0-and-2, then worked the count full.