Jinx by any name is tough luck

JOHN EISENBERG

July 29, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- "Do you believe in jinxes?" someone asked late last night, after the latest horror.

The manager shook his head, no.

"I believe in not catching the ball," Johnny Oates said. "Not hitting the ball at the right times."

The jinx is the easy way out. The easy excuse. The cop-out. It has to be a jinx, right? Last night's 5-4 loss runs the number to 13 times since October 1989 that the Orioles have lost to the Blue Jays on the Jays' last at-bat. What else could it be besides a jinx?

Well, plenty of things. Better clutch play, for instance. A better team, for instance.

Not by much, mind you. The Orioles and Jays are nothing if not a guarantee of a terrific ballgame. They play one-runners night after night, the lead changing hands, every pitch counting.

"We battle tooth and nail," Oates said. "We play them hard. Real hard."

The Jays just happen to win in the end. All the time.

The months change and the scores change and the circumstances change. Only the results don't change.

A jinx? Are you kidding? Maybe you could call it that if the teams really were equal, if the Jays won on flukes, if the winning runs came on miracle plays. It doesn't happen that way.

The Jays have a handful of utterly superb ballplayers, the kind that put pressure on opponents all game long. The kind that make big plays that win games. And they make them. That's what happens.

Take last night. The Orioles took a 4-2 lead into the seventh inning, beginning to envision a split of this two-game series. But who is the first Jay up to bat? John Olerud, with his puny .403 average. So, Fernando Valenzuela, not wanting to get clobbered, pitches around Olerud. Puts the kid on with a semi-intentional walk.

Presto, a rally has begun. And the Orioles have been kind enough to start it. All because of Olerud. The Orioles wouldn't start that rally for any other team. They wouldn't pitch around any other No. 5 hitter in the league.

That's called pressure. Talent. Superior talent. Not a jinx.

Anyway, then Tony Fernandez followed with a single, and the rally was for real, and the Jays ended up scoring two runs. Tie ballgame.

Twice in the next three innings, the Orioles had scoring chances. Both threats ended the same way: on balls that were hit back to the pitcher, starting double plays. Chris Hoiles and Mike Devereaux were the guilty parties.

That brings us to the Jays' 10th. Mark Williamson was on in relief for the Orioles, pitching well. He'd pitched out of a jam in the eighth -- a jam created by Tim Hulett's error on a groundball -- and cruised through the ninth, striking out two. He started the 10th by getting Robbie Alomar on a fly to center.

But the Jays have so many potent bats grouped together at the top of their lineup. So much pressure gets hung on the pitcher. After Alomar, only maybe the best player in the league, came Paul Molitor, only hitting .324.

Williamson walked him. That's what happens to .324 hitters. They tend to get walked more often.

You will notice that the Orioles' No. 3 hitter, Mike Devereaux, is hitting .268.

Anyway, Williamson snapped his glove in disgust. You could almost tell the club was getting ready to sink. Up stepped Joe Carter, who only has the most RBI in the major leagues over the last nine years. A tough, clutch hitter, as tough as they get. He worked the count full, fouled off six pitches and lined a single to center.

Molitor stopped at second, but Devereaux bobbled the ball in center and Molitor scrambled to third. Runners at the corners with one out, and guess who's up? You got it. Olerud. And since the winning run was already on third, Oates walked him intentionally.

Up stepped Fernandez, who is only hitting .303 since coming to the Jays last month. (Have you noticed a trend among the Jays' players? They're all pretty good.) Williamson got the best of Fernandez, got a grounder hit to shortstop . . .

. . . and Cal Ripken bobbled it. The hop came up to his hip, and the hip hop was too hot. He did corral the ball quickly and throw home, but too late. The winning run had scored.

For those keeping score at home, that was three Orioles errors in the last three innings. Three errors by baseball's best-fielding team.

"Did your guys tense up at the end?" someone asked Oates.

He waved his hand. "No way," he said.

He has to say that. But it looked like they did.

You can call it a jinx if you want to.

It isn't.

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