Jays wake Orioles from their reverie

JOHN EISENBERG

June 30, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

As the last out settled into Darnell Coles' glove on a suddenly silent night at Camden Yards, this was the new math the Orioles were trying to fathom: In one half-inning, they had wasted a month of brilliant work.

Overstating the case? Hardly. Maybe it's true that the Orioles were baseball's hottest team for the past month, but they're right back where they started after the killer loss the Blue Jays hung on them last night.

They've lost three straight games, each pushing them a game farther away from the first-place Jays. They're seven back now, which, for those scoring at home, is a touchdown and an extra point.

Binoculars, please.

And furthermore: They're seven games behind a team that so clearly has their number that it almost seems pointless to carry on.

Sure, the past month was a thrill, but last night's close encounter casts it all in the cold, proper light. Why get all riled up? The Blue Jays are a better team and they'll win in the end. They always do.

You could almost hear them giggling at the final out last night. They let the Orioles have their fun. Sure. Why not? Let them take their early lead, hang on, go into the ninth thinking big, the crowd charged up, Ben McDonald looking at a pearl of a win. And then: wham!

That's what happened. One half-inning. Twenty minutes. Two walks, three singles and three outs. Sounds innocent enough, but it's all the Jays needed to trash the Orioles' memories of the past month.

Remember the winning streak? When was that, three years ago?

The crowd roared as McDonald emerged from the dugout for the top of the ninth, holding a 1-0 lead. Everyone knows the deal with Ben, the diminished expectations, the four years of off-and-on performances, but he had been pitching better and better this past month, his ERA among the league's best, clearly building to something. Building to last night.

The timing was perfect. This was the biggest game of the year, period. Having lost the first game of this series, the Orioles

couldn't afford to lose the second and set up a possible Jays sweep. Not at home. Not with Fernando Valenzuela pitching the third.

It was a heavy weight for McDonald, but he shouldered it. He was magnificent, mixing pitches, changing locations, turning baseball's best-hitting team into so many pretzels. "He was incredible," Toronto starter Pat Hentgen said.

The Jays didn't get a hit until the fifth. They threatened to score only once in the first eight innings. McDonald was so seamless that manager Johnny Oates let him start the ninth inning. Three more outs and the Orioles would be only five games back.

On the first pitch, the Jays' Roberto Alomar singled to left. You have never heard so many people get so quiet so fast.

From there it just got worse. Alomar reached second on a wild pitch. Paul Molitor worked the count full, fouled off about a hundred pitches and drew a walk.

Oates went to the bullpen then, bringing in rookie Brad Pennington to face John ".400" Olerud. Alomar stole third. Who had the stomach to keep watching? Suddenly, the Orioles had a one-point lead in the last 10 seconds and Michael Jordan had the ball. It wasn't a question of if they would lose. It was a question of how.

Olerud slammed a 1-2 pitch down the left-field line -- foul by a foot. Then he sent a 2-2 pitch past a drawn-in second base into right field, and the game was tied. Tony Fernandez's single delivered the winning run.

Suddenly, McDonald wasn't the masterful winner. He was the losing pitcher, a decidedly unfair fate, but such is the tenor of the one-sided rivalry between these teams. The Jays always have the answer.

The Orioles should have won last night. They wasted all sorts of chances. A leadoff double in the second. A bases-loaded, one-out situation in the third. Another leadoff double in the seventh.

"We should have won the ballgame," Oates said. "I would think the opportunities were there to score more than one run tonight."

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

The fact is that Hentgen hung tough, and, in the end, the Orioles can't match the clutch, savvy play of such All-Star Jays as Alomar, Molitor and Olerud.

Amazing. One half-inning, one 20-minute interlude, and the Orioles had gone from a dead sprint to a full stagger. The stands were full when it all started, but thousands of fans were gone by the time Gregg Olson finally recorded the third out. Seas of green seats were evident throughout the ballpark. Could you blame them? Who could stand to watch?

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