All the Orioles can do now is play out 1995 and plan for 1996, and if Scott Erickson continues to pitch as he has since being acquired from Minnesota, he'll make one decision very easy for them.
Erickson pitched his third complete game in his past five starts, and, backed by a three-run homer from Rafael Palmeiro and a grand slam by Bobby Bonilla, he beat the Yankees, 8-1, before 47,436 at Camden Yards.
The Yankees fell a game behind the Seattle Mariners in the race for the AL wild card.
With $26.5 million already committed to six players for 1996, the Orioles likely will try to trim some of their existing payroll. Ben McDonald, who makes $4.5 million this year, will likely be cut back or cut altogether. Same with Kevin Brown, his '95 salary being $4.225 million.
They face a decision with Erickson, as well, who made $1.86 million. Chances are he'll finish the year with an ERA of over five runs per game, and he's had a handful of very bad outings for the Orioles, failing to pitch into the fifth inning.
But the bottom line is Erickson has done something that Sid Fernandez and Arthur Rhodes and McDonald could not do, something that Brown has had trouble doing since June. Win games. Although the Orioles didn't trade for Erickson until July 6, has seven wins; in little more than two months, he has one less victory than Jamie Moyer, who ranks second among the Orioles in wins, with eight.
The Orioles scored three runs for him early, and Erickson aggressively and effectively protected the lead. His only real trouble came in the sixth inning, when the Yankees filled the bases with three straight singles, one a bloop and another a broken-bat hit.
But Erickson got Mike Stanley -- who had been 9-for-10 with the bases loaded, with 26 RBIs -- to pop out to short, and Don Mattingly lined out to deep center, firing his helmet across the infield after Jarvis Brown made the catch.
The rest was easy, Erickson picking up his fifth complete game for the Orioles. Run support is a favorite tool of agents and arbitrators, a means by which a pitcher can claim that he was actually better than his won-loss record indicates. Erickson won't have that luxury this off-season, because the Orioles have scored runs in bunches when he's pitched. Eighty-one runs in 14 starts, almost six runs per outing.
Against a wild Yankees rookie, the Orioles could hardly contain themselves.
For five innings, Sterling Hitchcock threw the type of game often seen in the minor leagues -- a pitcher whose control is so bad that it actually keeps the hitters off-balance and ineffective. The Orioles acted surprised when Hitchcock threw strikes, which, in stretches, wasn't very often.
He walked Brady Anderson in the first, walked Cal Ripken. Bonilla flied to right for the second out, but Hitchcock fell behind Palmeiro 1-0 and attempted to spin a breaking pitch over, with some pretty good bite.
But Palmeiro, a left-handed hitter, is unique in his ability to hang in on breaking pitches from left-handed pitchers. When Hitchcock's slider broke over the plate thigh-high, Palmeiro pulled it over the scoreboard in right field, a three-run shot.
(Palmeiro's stealth season continues. His home run placed him, for the moment, one behind league leaders Albert Belle and Mo Vaughn, who each went into last night with 37 homers apiece. Belle and Vaughn, of course, are being considered for MVP consideration. Palmeiro is three RBIs away from 100.)
Hitchcock walked another before getting out of the first, and with one out in the second, he walked Bret Barberie and Jarvis Brown in succession. Yankees manager Buck Showalter ran to the mound, possibly to note aloud to his pitcher that he had just given free passes to a switch-hitter batting .154 from the right side (Barberie) and a .200 hitter (Brown).
However, Hitchcock cut down Anderson on strikes and retired Ripken on a grounder to third, and for the next three innings the Yankees' left-hander continued in this vein. Give up some walks, throw just enough strikes to survive. After five innings, the Orioles had nine walks and one hit, Palmeiro's homer.
In the sixth, Hitchcock's lack of control finally finished him. He nailed Barberie with one out, and Brown singled Barberie to second. Anderson, who had failed in a similar situation in the second, stroked a line single to left.
The Orioles have been essentially a station-to-station team this year, but even after Dion James fielded Anderson's hit cleanly, in short left, third base coach Steve Boros challenged him, sending Barberie.
The throw was off line, Barberie scored, Brown went to third. Anderson hesitated for a moment, and when Hitchcock, backing up the throw to home, fielded the ball, Anderson was halfway to second. He turned and faced Hitchcock and pranced, daring him to make the decision of whether to throw to first or second. Rare baserunning arrogance by the Orioles.
Hitchcock threw to second, and even as he was turning his body to release the ball, Anderson was racing back to first, where he beat the relay.
Hitchcock was finished, having thrown 123 pitches, only 60 strikes. Mariano Rivera relieved, walked Ripken to load the bases, and threw a first-pitch fastball over the heart of the plate to Bonilla. Wham. Bonilla stood at home for a moment to watch his grand slam disappear over the scoreboard.
The Orioles and Erickson were in command.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' Jack McDowell (14-10, 3.73) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (16-8, 3.55)
Tickets: 100 remain