The Orioles spent the spring working on a new, mor aggressive approach to base running. But when push came to shove in the opener of their showdown series with the Toronto Blue Jays, they played it too conservatively to keep their faint division title hopes alive.
Tim Hulett might have been thrown out at the plate if third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr. had allowed him to try to score on a shallow fly ball by Mark McLemore. Instead, Hulett still was stationed at third base when the Blue Jays recorded the final out of a 4-3 victory in the wee hours yesterday morning.
Should Ripken have gambled with the potential tying run? Maybe. Would he have been vilified if Hulett had been thrown out to end the game? Probably. It was that close a call.
Ripken said he didn't understand what all the commotion was about. He said afterward that Blue Jays center fielder Devon White would have thrown out Hulett easily.
"I guarantee it," Ripken said.
That might be true, but the situation might have warranted a more reckless approach. The Orioles have been struggling to get runners home from third base for weeks. The Blue Jays had one of the best relief pitchers in the game on the mound. The fly ball by McLemore left them down to their last out.
Stopper Tom Henke went on to walk Brady Anderson intentionally, setting up a bases-loaded showdown with Mike Devereaux, who already had driven in two runs with a homer and an RBI ground out. Devereaux has been amazingly productive with the bases loaded this year (35 RBI in 22 at-bats), but he popped up to end the game.
The loss did not mathematically eliminate the Orioles, who are five games out of first place with 11 to play, but it realistically left them with little to play for but an outside chance to get back into second place.
The play might not have been so magnified if White had not forced catcher Pat Borders well up the third-base line with his throw, but his wide throw left Ripken's decision under the unforgiving microscope of hindsight.
"It's one of those calls," White said. "The top of the order was coming up -- Brady Anderson and Mike Devereaux. It's one of those calls. The ball just wasn't deep enough."
Manager Johnny Oates would not second-guess his coach, though he had managed the late innings very aggressively, using up his best pinch runners in an eighth-inning rally against set-up man Duane Ward. The Orioles even had a runner thrown out trying to score on a ground ball in the eighth inning, when Anderson broke for the plate on a contact play that was called because of the club's slump.
Hulett would not question the decision either. He said yesterday that he might have been out even with the throw sailing well up the line.
"Initially, if the ball is thrown around the plate, I'm out," Hulett said. "If he caught it cleanly, it would have been a bang-bang play."
The odds did not favor him, but they might have been better than the odds of any Oriole delivering a sudden-death single. Henke has held opposing hitters to a .181 batting average this year, and he had retired Devereaux 12 times in 13 career matchups.
It was a dramatic ending to a night that didn't figure to have much drama at all. The game was delayed nearly three hours by rain. Starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe took the mound at 10:15 p.m. after attempting to warm up twice earlier.
White hit a leadoff home run in the first inning. Devereaux tied the game with a homer in the third, but Todd Stottlemyre held the Orioles to two hits through six innings.
The game appeared to be all but over when Toronto first baseman John Olerud broke the tie with a two-run homer in the fourth inning. The Blue Jays scored three times in the fourth to get to Sutcliffe, who was removed from the game with back spasms after 3 1/3 innings.
"I was ready to go at 7:30," Sutcliffe said. "I started up again around 8 to go at 8:30, and then they shut it down again. After that, my body started tightening up some."