Bamberger's 20-20-20-20 vision

ORIOLES GREATEST MOMENTS

September 14, 1995|By Doug Brown | Doug Brown,Sun Staff Writer

Orioles pitching coach George Bamberger was on the mound one day in 1971 talking to a starter when shortstop Mark Belanger offered a suggestion.

"Make him hit the ball to me and I'll get us out of the inning," Belanger said.

That was the year the Orioles became the second team in major-league baseball history to produce four 20-game winners. It was the year that Dave McNally (21-5), Pat Dobson (20-8), Mike Cuellar (20-9) and Jim Palmer (20-9) reached the mark, joining Red Faber (23-13), Lefty Williams (22-14), Dickie Kerr (21-9) and Eddie Cicotte (21-10) of the 1920 Chicago White Sox.

And the key to it, beyond brilliant pitching, was great defense. The Orioles' fielders were good and, as Belanger's remark to Bamberger suggests, they knew it.

"We couldn't have been any better," Bamberger said, noting the infield of Brooks Robinson, Belanger, Davey Johnson and Boog Powell and an outfield headed by Paul Blair in center.

Before the season, Bamberger predicted that the Orioles would have four 20-game winners, up from three in 1970. Asked how he could make such a bold statement, he answered, "Because this club is so good."

Powell recalls that the offense, playing no favorites, "scored for everybody." On the rare occasions when it took a night off, "one of those four guys shut 'em out," Powell said. "They didn't need much relief."

The Orioles led the American League in complete games (71), ERA (2.99) and fewest runs allowed (530). That despite the fact that McNally went 38 days without a start because of a sore elbow and that Dobson was 3-4 in mid-June.

"Dobson, my road roomie, was the surprise," Powell said. "He was a real gamer. If you wrote a book on how to pitch, he's the one I'd feature. Mediocre stuff -- 85 mph fastball, pretty good curve -- but a gamer."

Dobson had come to the Orioles from the San Diego Padres, where he was 14-15 in 1970. Bamberger and third base coach Billy Hunter used to argue over the question: Was pitching the reason the Orioles won or was defense the reason the pitching was so good?

"We asked Pat why he was better that year," Hunter said. "He said the previous year it was either a hit or an error when the other team hit a ground ball. Now it's an out or a double play. He said batters are still hitting his pitches, but people are making the plays."

In a six-day period starting Sept. 21, McNally, Cuellar, Dobson and finally Palmer earned their 20th victories.

McNally started it with a shutout over the New York Yankees that marked his seventh win in nine starts since he said of his elbow in August, "It feels the same -- hurts like the devil when I throw the ball." He became the first AL pitcher to win 20 four straight years since the Yankees' Red Ruffing from 1936 to 1939.

Three days later, Cuellar clinched the East title with a 9-2 decision over the Cleveland Indians for his 20th, and Dobson followed in the second game of the doubleheader with his, a 7-0 victory.

That left Palmer, who had lost three one-run decisions and two others by two. On Sept. 26, in Cleveland, Palmer was getting his final start of the season.

"I was desperate," Palmer said. "I was having a good year, but to have those three win 20 and not me would have been embarrassing. I was determined to make a difference, to win it myself. I doubled down the left-field line in a 0-0 game, tried for third and was thrown out. I had dust all over me."

Because Palmer had better stuff than anyone else on the staff, it figured he would reach 20 first.

"Those guys were so competitive with each other," Brooks Robinson said. "They wanted the ball. No one wanted to come out of a game."

Elrod Hendricks recalls that Palmer "had to pitch his tail off all year," losing occasionally when the offense failed him. "For his 20th, he took that attitude that no matter what it took, he was going to get it. He was so determined."

It was vintage Palmer that day. He pitched brilliantly, finishing with a three-hit, 5-0 shutout over the Indians and 20 wins for the second straight year, and with dust all over him.

Remembering the moment

"The key was their durability, going out there every fourth or fifth day and pitching. They could throw the ball over the plate knowing when it was hit, with that defense, it would be caught."

-- Right fielder Frank Robinson "The one guy you would have expected to be the first to win 20, Palmer, was the last."

-- Catcher Elrod Hendricks "Dave McNally was the consummate professional. You could count on him like clockwork."

-- First baseman Boog Powell "Defense was so important to having four 20-game winners. Belanger, Blair, Brooks, Boog. And that guy at second base was no slouch, Davey Johnson."

-- Manager Earl Weaver "What they did -- four guys winning 20 -- had been done only once before in the history of the game."

-- Third baseman Brooks Robinson

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