One pitch shows O's have run dry

MIKE LITTWIN

September 20, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

MILWAUKEE -- You can't say the season came down to a 3-and-1 hanging curveball. That's too easy.

The pitch -- fat, tantalizing, as if it were a division title for the lTC taking -- is simply a symbol of a dream that has apparently slipped away.

The actuarial tables tell one story. The Orioles are 5 1/2 back with 15 to play. They're in third place for the first time since April. The Blue Jays (not Blow Jays this time, winners of 15 of their last 20) have a magic number of nine. If the Orioles, who've lost eight of 12, win a pennant now, they win a place in legend. That's a story for poets.

The pitch is another, more recognizable, story. It's the story of the Orioles' stretch run, which turned into a stretch crawl, if that. It's sad to see this season of light and magic end with an offensive blackout.

It was the third inning yesterday. Chris Bosio on the mound for the Brewers. Runners on second and third, the Orioles leading 1-0, Mike Devereaux batting, when the pitch floated toward the plate. Devereaux, whose season, not unlike the Orioles' season, has been so wondrous, swung mightily.

And the ball bounced weakly to third -- Devereaux out at first, runners holding. Cal Ripken flew out to end the inning. The Orioles never threatened again. The Brewers win, 4-1. You've seen this game before. It's another late-summer rerun.

"We did everything right that inning, except score a run," Johnny Oates said. "That's how it's gone for us. I don't know what it is."

Or what it was.

It has been 15 days since the Orioles last scored more than four runs. They've scored 30 runs in the last 13 games. One run is a big inning. Their big inning yesterday was another solo homer from Chris Hoiles. That was it.

"I don't think it's pressure," said Randy Milligan. "I think it's just bad timing.

"You don't see a team panicking out there."

He smiled. Gallows humor now.

"Maybe we should be panicking."

Milligan said it would be tough to catch the Blue Jays. Oates said the Orioles have dug themselves a hole so deep that it's hard to see any light.

"You just keep playing," Oates said.

"You play and pray," Milligan said.

The game yesterday was like so many other Orioles September games. Ben McDonald, who has pitched well of late to no effect, pitched well again -- only to register his fifth consecutive loss. The team has lost in his last seven starts -- despite McDonald's 3.89 ERA over that stretch. There's no mystery here. The Orioles have scored 16 runs in those seven games.

"You know you can't make a single mistake, or the game might be over," McDonald said.

That's a hard way to pitch. It's a tough road to travel in a tight, divisional race. There's pressure enough. McDonald gives up six hits in 6 1/3 innings. He made maybe one mistake. But he didn't throw a 3-and-1 hanging curveball like Bosio. And it didn't matter.

The Brewers, who have moved into second, look entirely different from the Orioles. They play this high-risk offense -- everyone runs -- and they seem infused with energy. The Orioles, meantime, seem to have run out of gas. Maybe they have. Maybe they overachieved this season to the point where they have nothing left.

If you looked in the clubhouse after the game, you saw players huddled in small groups, speaking in whispers, trying to find a voice for their disappointment.

"There are two ways to look at it," said Rick Sutcliffe. "You can say you're 5 1/2 games out and in third place and let it get to you. Or you can tell yourself you're four games back in the loss column, just like the Brewers, and it's like you're tied for second. We win the two games here, and then we have the three with Toronto.

"It doesn't look great now, but you can't let yourself think that way. I don't think we're pressing. I don't see signs of panic."

And so the Orioles hold on to the all-important loss column. And they try not to think of panic.

L They tell themselves it's not over until they say it's over.

They tell themselves they're still playing hard.

"When you don't hit, everything takes on a sour look," Oates was saying. "But you keep playing until Oct. 4."

He took off his cap and rubbed his forehead. Oates looked less sour than weary. That's how the Orioles look: weary.

And it's almost over.

Whatever happens, the Orioles have had a great season. Nobody wanted to hear that in the clubhouse.

"So what," said Brady Anderson. "We can talk about that when the season's over."

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