9-1 O's streak back for 7-6 victory Down 5 runs in fifth, club confidently tracks down Twins

HRs in 8th, 9th tie, win it

Johnson uses bullpen as if he had the lead

April 14, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Nothing tangible transpired in the first 4 1/2 innings that could've given the Orioles reason to believe they were going to beat the Minnesota Twins yesterday. Nothing.

Starter Kent Mercker failed to retire the first five or the last four Twins he faced, Minnesota led 6-1, and besides, you just can't win every day. You don't always come back. But as Orioles manager Davey Johnson stood there in the dugout, he was sure they could win, and so were his players. Absolutely positive.

Nothing tangible suggested they might win -- but they did anyway, tying the game in the eighth on a two-run homer by B. J. Surhoff, and Brady Anderson crushing a game-winning homer in the ninth to the delight of 42,644 frenzied fans. Orioles 7, Minnesota 6.

What the Orioles accomplished the first week of the season was remarkable, but what they are accomplishing now is bordering on historical. Nine wins and one loss is the second-best start in club history; only the 1966 team has been better (12-1), and those Orioles went on to win the World Series.

The 1996 Orioles have the best record in baseball, with a seven-game lead over the defending AL East champion Boston Red Sox. They've won all seven games at Camden Yards, and have won five straight overall. The Orioles didn't win five straight last year until the final five games.

"With all the new faces around here, a good start was mandatory," Johnson said. "We kind of had to get out of the chute."

Three, two, one. Blastoff.

Four comeback wins among the first 10, a 7-0 record in games decided by two runs or fewer. "We're never too far out of a ballgame," said designated hitter Bobby Bonilla. "Let's not get carried away now -- 10 or 11 runs down, we won't come back from that. But when we're in striking distance . . ."

By conventional standards, the Twins were just about out of striking distance. They scored three runs in the first, and when Ron Coomer doubled home two runs in the fifth, they led 5-1. Johnson came out to yank Mercker; it was a situation that normally called for a long reliever, somebody to come in and throw a few innings and keep the score respectable.

Instead, Johnson called on Roger McDowell, his top right-handed setup man, who usually pitches in the seventh or eighth when the Orioles are ahead. The Orioles were four runs down in the fifth. The message was clear: Johnson thought the Orioles had a good shot at winning this game.

"Davey and I talked about it in the dugout," said pitching coach Pat Dobson. "We both felt like if we could keep the score right there, with as many innings as we had to go, we had a chance."

Left fielder Jeffrey Hammonds said: "We noticed it. But that's Davey. That's the reason why he has the stars by his name. . . . We had to stop the bleeding, and then we'd have a chance."

Pat Meares hit a single up the middle, extending the Twins' lead to 6-1, before the Orioles went about the business of coming back. Anderson hit a sacrifice fly and Roberto Alomar hit a run-scoring double in the fifth, shaving the deficit to three runs. As Rafael Palmeiro would say later, there was a feeling among the Orioles that a three-run deficit with four innings to go was not that much.

Eddie Guardado relieved Minnesota starter LaTroy Hawkins in the sixth. Cal Ripken doubled and scored on Hammonds' two-out triple, a looping fly ball down the right-field line that fell in a few feet fair. It was as if the Orioles were stalking the Twins.

Johnson continued to use his bullpen as if the Orioles were tied or had the lead, something he could do with his rested relievers after Mike Mussina's complete-game performance Friday night. Jesse Orosco relieved McDowell in the eighth, and after Orosco retired one hitter, Johnson called for right-hander Armando Benitez, who finished off the Twins in the eighth (with help from Gregg Zaun, who blocked a potential wild pitch with a runner at third base). Closer Randy Myers began to throw with the Orioles down 6-4.

Palmeiro singled to open the bottom of the eighth, but Guardado struck out Bonilla and Ripken, using a high fastball. Surhoff was next, and in the back of his mind, Johnson hoped Guardado would throw one more high fastball.

High fastball. Crash.

Surhoff knew he hit the ball deep enough, and as he dropped his bat, he hoped his drive would stay fair. It bounced off the foul pole, and the score was tied. The crowd roared, and when it demanded a curtain call from Surhoff, he ascended just one step in the dugout and gave a few shy, reserved waves that Queen Elizabeth would've appreciated.

The Twins couldn't score against Benitez in the top of the ninth, and as the Orioles prepared to hit, Bonilla mentioned to Ripken in the dugout that he thought Anderson would end the game with a homer. "He's been swinging the bat great," Bonilla said. "I thought he would drive the ball."

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