MINNEAPOLIS -- Reliever Roger McDowell sounded like one of those Oscar winners after the Orioles' 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins last night, thanking so many of his good friends.
Like his good friend, Roberto Alomar, whose range kept McDowell and the Orioles out of a big inning in the seventh.
Like his good friend, Cal Ripken, whose diving stop prevented the tying run from scoring.
Like his good friend, Gregg Zaun, who threw out Paul Molitor on a steal attempt at third in the eighth inning, becoming the first catcher to cut down Molitor since 1993.
McDowell and all of his good friends are off to a terrific start, becoming the first Orioles team to win its first four games since 1985. A win tonight and the Orioles will start the season 5-0 for the first time since 1970, a year when they went on to win the World Series.
"That's what I have to have," said McDowell, a sinkerball pitcher who gets a lot of ground balls. "Guys making plays, especially on artificial surface. It's nice to have infielders like this, because you basically know the ball is going to be caught."
Ground balls are going to be caught, throws are going to be made, they're going to get the key hits. The Orioles are playing weak teams in the first week of the season, and exploiting them. Minnesota's LaTroy Hawkins pitched six strong innings, and Orioles starter and eventual winning pitcher Kent Mercker matched him.
The Orioles broke through for single runs in the sixth (a bases-empty homer by Jeffrey Hammonds) and the seventh (a sacrifice fly by Chris Hoiles, scoring Bobby Bonilla).
McDowell relieved Mercker to start the seventh and immediately was in trouble. Pat Meares singled leading off, and with the Orioles holding Meares at first, Twins manager Tom Kelly looked to exploit that hole between first baseman Rafael Palmeiro and Alomar.
Kelly inserted the left-handed-hitting Greg Myers as a pinch hitter. Myers flied out, but another left-handed hitter, Matt Lawton, hit a sharp grounder toward right, between first and second. Hoiles was sure it would get through, because of the strong topspin on the ball.
But if there was ever really a hole, Alomar plugged it, ranging over, spearing the grounder, doing a 270-degree turn and throwing out Lawton at first. Rather than first and third and one out, the Twins had Meares at second and two out.
"If he doesn't make that play, we could have a big inning there," McDowell said.
It was still a dangerous situation, with All-Star Chuck Knoblauch at bat. He slammed a grounder up the middle, and McDowell flashed a glove at the ball -- no luck. It was headed toward center field, a sure hit, McDowell thought.
At Camden Yards, on grass, this was a ball Ripken might've caught moving to his left. But on the turf, it was a different story, his priorities altered.
"Here, I was most concerned about being able to knock the ball down so the run wouldn't score," Ripken said.
Ripken dove headlong at Knoblauch's grounder, his chest skidding against the artificial surface, his legs bending up behind him. Doing The Scorpion, Mike Mussina called it. Ripken caught the ball in the webbing of his glove, keeping it in the infield and preventing Meares from scoring.
"That gave me a chance to face another hitter," McDowell said, and Tom Quinlan struck out, ending the rally.
As the bottom of the eighth began, Zaun jogged onto the field, replacing Hoiles. If Randy Myers is the Orioles' closer on the mound, Zaun is the closer behind home plate -- he has finished all four of the Orioles' games.
Molitor doubled leading off the eighth, his third hit of the game, a line shot into the right-field corner. Ron Coomer flied to right, and Molitor figured it was time to find a way to get to third, his team one run down.
The last time Molitor was thrown out stealing was Aug. 21, 1993, when the Seattle Mariners' Dave Valle gunned him down. Since then he had swiped 36 without being caught, and with McDowell paying little attention to him, Molitor believed he had a good read. He broke for third.
Zaun said later that he was surprised by Molitor's move. But he gathered the pitch from McDowell, fired to third, and B. J. Surhoff dropped down a good tag. Out.
Molitor walked off the field muttering. "It was just a great throw by their catcher," he said.
Myers replaced McDowell for the ninth inning and struck out all three batters he faced. Dave Hollins, the final out, watched a 3-2 changeup float across for strike three.
McDowell still may be thanking his good friends this morning.
"It's nice, 4-0," he said. "It's nice that we're doing things in tight games to win the close games. It's the difference between good clubs and the bad ballclubs."
Right now, the Orioles are very, very good.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis
Time: 8: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jimmy Haynes (2-1, 2.25 in '95) vs. Twins' Brad Radke (1-0, 1.50 in '96)
Pub Date: 4/06/96