With a touch of luck, Palmeiro keeps it going

May 20, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

In his second at-bat, he hit a screaming line drive to right for a sacrifice fly. In his third, he hit a monstrous shot to right-center, a ball that was going, going . . .

Caught.

Caught by a leaping, fully extended Otis Nixon, 10 feet in the air, body far above the wall, glove halfway to the Inner Harbor.

Goodbye, hitting streak?

No way.

In his final at-bat, Rafael Palmeiro made it 21 straight games with a broken-bat bloop to shallow center field that he stretched into a double.

If ever a game demonstrated the absurd luck necessary to maintain a long hitting streak, last night's was it.

Only in baseball: Palmeiro crushed the ball twice to no avail, but his worst contact of the night preserved the streak.

"It doesn't even out, really," Palmeiro said afterward, still smarting over the home run that Nixon took away. "That play cost us the game."

Thus, Palmeiro couldn't prevent the Orioles from losing a 3-2 heartbreaker to Boston. But tonight, he can tie a club record shared by Doug DeCinces (1979) and Eddie Murray (1984).

Twenty-two games -- that's as far as any modern-day Oriole has gone. Palmeiro will need to double that to match the longest streak in Baltimore history -- a 44-gamer by Wee Willie Keeler for the National League O's at the start of the 1897 season.

To think, the whole thing appeared over when Nixon made his stunning catch leading off the sixth, a catch that left Palmeiro stuck on 10 homers for the 10th straight game, a catch that kept the Orioles from regaining the lead.

Palmeiro thought it was gone, and so did Orioles manager Johnny Oates. But the ball died in the cool night air. Nixon measured his approach and timed his leap at the 7-foot wall perfectly.

His catch rivaled Mike Devereaux's flying, over-the-wall backhand grab on Joe Carter in 1992 as the greatest in the brief history of Camden Yards.

It also was reminiscent of Nixon's over-the-wall on Andy Van Slyke that produced the final out of a dramatic 1-0 victory by Atlanta over Pittsbugh in 1992.

"If I had to rate them, I think the other one was a little bit tougher a catch because the fences were twice as high and the game was on the line," Nixon said.

Whatever you say, Otis.

"It looked like he could have sat up on top of the wall after he caught it," left fielder Brady Anderson said. "His glove had to be 11 feet off the ground."

So, Palmeiro was left to extend his streak on a two-out, two-strike pitch that jammed him, a pitch from Chris Howard that he couldn't identify, a pitch that broke his bat yet improved his average against left-handed pitching to .410.

Before the game, he said the streak was "not that important," and afterward he seemed more stung by the defeat than anything else. But surely, his feeling would change if his streak reached 30 games.

There have been only 33 streaks of 30 games or longer in major-league history, and seven of those came before 1900. George Sisler holds the American League record for a left-handed hitter -- 41 games.

Of course, that's not the record.

"Twenty in a row, keep on going," a clubhouse visitor told Palmeiro before the game.

"Thirty-six to go," Palmeiro joked, smiling as he left for the field.

Thirty-six to go.

Five weeks to DiMaggio.

"Beyond comprehension," Palmeiro said.

Hit in 56 straight games? Heck, it's the rare major leaguer today who plays in 56 straight.

Of all the untouchable records in baseball -- Nolan Ryan's 5,714 strikeouts, Pete Rose's 4,256 hits, Cy Young's 511 wins -- the DiMaggio streak carries the greatest mystique.

The record only seems more attainable than the others. In all likelihood, it never will be broken, and DiMaggio probably couldn't manage the same feat if he were playing today.

Relief specialists didn't exist in 1941. A hitter today might face a top setup man in the seventh, then a closer in the ninth, making it that much more difficult to extend his streak.

"The third or fourth at-bat is much tougher than when you were facing a starter who was throwing his 150th or 160th pitch," Oates said.

Palmeiro has batted against 46 pitchers during his 21-game streak. Opposing managers frequently use left-handed relievers against him in the late innings.

Boston's Butch Hobson did just that last night, summoning the rookie Howard to face the top of the Orioles' order in the eighth even though right-hander Danny Darwin had allowed only four hits in seven innings.

Palmeiro wound up with his third lucky hit of the streak. In Game No. 15, he hit an opposite-field single over a drawn-in Toronto infield. In Game No. 19, he hit an infield single off the glove of Boston shortstop Tim Naehring.

The streak lives.

The home run was caught.

7+ "That one hurts," Rafael Palmeiro said.

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