Best-laid plans backfire on Oates

KEN ROSENTHAL

July 01, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Johnny Oates sat in his kitchen in the dark, replaying the ninth inning over and over. Finally, he dozed off in his chair, only to awaken moments later with the same harrowing thought.

He had blown it.

The Orioles needed to protect a 1-0 lead against the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday night, but Oates waited too long to use Gregg Olson, the best reliever in club history, enjoying the best month of his career.

That was Oates' biggest regret in an inning that prevented a 6-3 homestand from being 7-2, an inning so full of questionable strategy, he conceded, "it should give the talk shows something to go on for a week."

Why let Ben McDonald pitch to Paul Molitor after giving up Roberto Alomar's leadoff single? Why summon rookie left-hander Brad Pennington instead of the right-handed Olson? Why play the infield in with the red-hot John Olerud at bat?

The questions were still vivid yesterday, and Oates was still kicking himself for violating a cardinal rule he learned from Sparky Anderson -- never allow your starting pitcher to suffer a loss after taking a lead into the late innings.

"I let Olerud dictate that whole inning to me," Oates said. "He's so hot, I was thinking three hitters ahead about how I was going to avoid him."

So, he outfoxed himself, and lost the battle to Olerud anyway. Maybe nothing Oates did would have mattered on a night his team went 1-for-13 with men in scoring position, a night Alomar again showed why he is the best player in the league.

Still, he wants the inning back.

The one thing Oates said he would definitely repeat was using McDonald to start the ninth. McDonald had thrown only 114 pitches to that point, and struck out Devon White to end the previous inning. He deserved to stay in the game.

Yet, Oates was uneasy knowing Alomar would lead off. He told coach Mike Ferraro, "You watch: When they're down a run in the late innings, he tries to hit the ball to Junior's right" -- the hole between shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. and third base.

Alomar smiled at the words, knowing he drilled McDonald's first pitch past the diving Gomez for a single. It was at this point that Oates said he normally would have brought in Olson. But he was preoccupied with Olerud.

Never mind that Olson has held left-handed hitters to a .190 career average: Olerud was 3-for-5 off him, and batting .434 against right-handed pitching. Oates wanted Pennington to face him, and McDonald to bridge the gap against Molitor.

His thinking was backward. Oates should have removed McDonald before the rally went any further. And he should have gone with his hot veteran closer, not a rookie coming off the worst outing of his major-league career.

As it turned out, McDonald walked Molitor after a memorable eight-pitch battle, putting the potential winning run on base. Oates then got his matchup, summoning Pennington to face Olerud. But with the count 1-2, Alomar took off for third.

Catcher Chris Hoiles should have at least made a throw, especially with a left-handed hitter at bat. But Pennington bounced the only slider he threw Olerud, and Hoiles couldn't find the ball, making it first-and-third with none out.

That's when Oates brought the infield in with two strikes, figuring Olerud would just try to make contact. "That was my thinking -- put the bat on the ball," Olerud said. Of course, whenever he does that these days, the result is a base hit.

The correct strategy would have been to keep the infield back and play for the tie. Instead, Oates wound up giving a .400 hitter even more of a chance to succeed. Olerud hit a broken-bat single just over second baseman Harold Reynold's glove. At normal depth, Reynolds would have caught the ball.

A game of inches. What if Gomez had snared Alomar's rocket? What if Reynolds had timed his leap properly? And what if Tony Fernandez had executed his sacrifice? Oates didn't summon Olson because he knew Fernandez would be bunting. But Fernandez couldn't get the bunt down, and delivered the game-winning hit with two strikes.

It all looked like destiny, the way it always does when superior teams take control. Alomar said he would have stolen third even against Olson -- "he's slow [to the plate] too, real slow" -- and who would have bet against Olerud with a runner on third and none out?

No one, but Oates wasn't thinking that way as he sat in the dark early yesterday morning. He was going to sit there forever, alone with his thoughts, until he figured it all out.

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