Fall-like June night brings out heroes

KEN ROSENTHAL

June 25, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The calendar said June, but the tension felt like September. For most of the night, the Detroit Tigers were one swing away from their first victory at Camden Yards. It didn't happen, but the Orioles can't relax, not with the New York Yankees and Toronto )) Blue Jays next.

Chalk up last night's 6-2 victory to the new-found grit of Ben McDonald, the veteran poise of Harold Baines, the clutch play of Mark McLemore and, most of all, the left arm of rookie Brad Pennington. It was only June, only Game No. 71, but suddenly the Orioles look resilient enough to withstand any challenge.

Forget the chants of "sweep" and the seemingly lopsided score. Could the seventh inning have been any more nerve-racking? With the Orioles leading 4-1, reliever Mark Williamson gave up a leadoff walk to Lou Whitaker and then back-to-back singles to Travis Fryman and Cecil Fielder.

Now the score was 4-2.

The entire season seemed at stake.

And manager Johnny Oates summoned Pennington.

This is the kid who once got sent home from spring training after getting into a fight with his roommate, the kid who started last season started at Single-A. All he did last night was stare down the highest-scoring team in the majors and pitch three innings for his fourth save.

It was a watershed moment. Pennington threw 56 exhausting pitches, all but two of them fastballs. He now has three wins and three saves in his past eight games. He also has stranded 21 of 25 inherited runners -- including the two Williamson left for him with none out in the seventh last night.

First, Pennington struck out pinch hitter Dan Gladden. Then, he issued a walk after a nine-pitch battle with Mickey Tettleton, loading the bases with one out. Pennington rebounded to strike out Chad Kreuter. But then came Alan Trammell. The aging veteran vs. the blazing phenom.

Trammell drove the ball into the gap in right-center for what appeared to be a certain extra-base hit. But McLemore somehow ran it down, then reached high over his head for a stunning backhand catch. No recent Orioles right fielder gets that ball -- not Luis Mercedes, not Chito Martinez, not Joe Orsulak.

True to form, McLemore wasn't finished. In the eighth, he hit a two-run double down the right-field line to increase the Orioles' lead from two runs to four. Earlier, he had delivered a sacrifice fly. After so many years of obscurity, the guy just won't stop.

In the end, Pennington was still on the mound, and the crowd was on its feet. The Tigers arrived in Baltimore as the biggest, baddest team in the AL East. They left with their lead diminished to percentage points over Toronto, two games over the Yankees and five over the Orioles.

"We definitely got more breaks than they did tonight," McLemore said. "It was just one of those games. A hit here or there and they could have been on top."

True enough, but for the Tigers, there's simply no escaping the Curse of Camden Yards. Manager Sparky Anderson is 2,039-1,639 lifetime, 0-10 in the new park. Bet the house on the National League in the All-Star Game. Anderson is a coach for the American League.

Last night, The Curse struck again, with Tigers starter Mark Leiter throwing an excruciating 71 pitches in two innings. He gave up a hit to Cal Ripken on a pitchout, then a three-run, opposite-field homer to Baines after a 10-pitch at-bat. For once, it looked like McDonald would have it easy.

Oates knew better. Cecil Fielder hasn't stolen a base all season, but Oates ordered David Segui to hold him on first in the second, trying to prevent Fielder from scoring on a double. "That's the way it is when you play them," Oates said. "They're so explosive, you don't want to give them a run."

The strategy nearly backfired when Tettleton drilled a line-drive double over the spot Segui vacated, but McDonald pitched out of the jam. He went on to allow nine base runners in 5 1/3 innings, but the Tigers' only run off him was on a bases-empty homer by Fielder.

After 15 starts, McDonald now has a lower ERA (3.54) than Mike Mussina (3.83). He also has given up fewer homers (nine) than Mussina (12). Fielder's 19th homer was the first off him in seven starts dating to May 17. No one would have guessed he was pitching with a fever. Suddenly, he's a gamer.

Of course, by the end of this four-hour marathon, McDonald's effort was nearly forgotten. Fryman and Fielder batted one more time in the ninth. Even with the four-run lead, even with the crowd chanting, even with The Curse intact, the Orioles couldn't get comfortable. Not until the final, blissful out.

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