Orioles hope history is on their side

JOHN EISENBERG

July 28, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- The Orioles are clinging to the comfort of history this morning. They're holding onto it, believing in it, praying to it. Otherwise, they'd be in a heap.

There was another brutal loss to the Blue Jays last night at SkyDome. The kind of loss that takes your breath away, not to mention your momentum, your confidence and your belief that the division has your name on it.

Down early, up late, down in the end. A classic game, maybe the best of the year, and, in the end, a brutal loss, full of bark and bite.

The only reason not to stamp it as a millstone of the Orioles' 1993, the point from which a season turns south, is history.

Four weeks ago to the night, if you recall, there was another brutal loss to the Jays. A real brute, this one. The Orioles took a 1-0 lead into the ninth at Camden Yards, Ben McDonald working on a masterpiece. First pitch, Robbie Alomar singles. The Jays score twice to win. Silence at the ballpark.

That loss pushed the Orioles seven games behind the first-place Jays, and what Camden Yarder didn't wake up the next day with the gloomy feeling that the Jays would always have the Orioles' number?

Twenty-one days later, the Orioles were in first place. Amazing, but true. They stayed hot, the Jays cooled off, and the memory of that devastating loss quickly faded.

Today, the Orioles can only cling to the solace of that memory. It happened once, so it can happen again. Right. Right?

They can only hope.

Certainly, last night's loss was every bit as crushing as last month's. A team can't play any harder or tougher on the road than the Orioles did. Their emotions went from low to high to ultra-low in one inning.

Rick Sutcliffe, who had been awful for a month, rose to the high occasion, pitching his guts out. He gave up an early homer to Paul Molitor and allowed three runs in the first three innings, but just when he was on verge of getting yanked again, he started hitting the edges of the plate.

It was a classic piece of old-pro, pennant-race pitching. The Jays went quietly in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings. The Orioles, down three early, made it a game.

Harold Baines hit a two-run homer in the fourth. A Jack Voigt double was wasted in the seventh. They were right there.

Then, in the eighth, a colossal moment. Or so it seemed at the time. Two on, two out, and Jays manager City Gaston brings in his closer, Duane Ward, to pitch to Cal Ripken. The second pitch lands in the left-field seats. The Orioles' bench erupts.

The moment had the underpinnings of a ghostbusting. The Orioles had sunk in SkyDome so often in the past that it had almost become routine. But now there was this huge homer from the Orioles' $6 million man, a reason to think things might be different.

The euphoria lasted exactly a half-inning.

If ever there was a half-inning to make you believe the Orioles will never really get to the Jays, it was the eighth.

Molitor singled with one out and manager Johnny Oates finally pulled Sutcliffe. Mark Williamson was brought in to pitch to Joe Carter. First pitch, single. Oates brought in Jim Poole to pitch to John Olerud. First pitch, single.

The bases were loaded, and for the third time in three pitches, Oates popped out of the dugout. He was managing like it was the World Series, the machinations going full bore. He called for Gregg Olson, his closer.

Olson managed to strike out Tony Fernandez to get within one out of escaping. But then Ed Sprague smashed a 1-0 pitch for a double that scored two runs, and Pat Borders beat out an infield single to score a third.

The Jays had a one-run lead again and Ward saved it in the ninth. The Orioles put runners on the corners with one out, but that was just to increase the final frustration.

Afterward, the Orioles' clubhouse was not as depressed as you'd think. They'd played a tough, clutch game. They're only two-and-a-half games out.

After the Jays beat McDonald in the ninth last month, Fernando Valenzuela pitched a shutout the next night. Tonight, the Orioles need another huge game from their aging, miracle left-hander. And if they don't get it, if they get swept in this two-game series, well, it's still just July.

But a team can only reconcile so many brutal losses. At some point, it has to win the desperate games, not lose them. The fair question to ask is this: How much can a team take?

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