The best way of gauging Roberto Alomar's value to the Orioles may be trying to imagine where this team would be without him, considering the early-season slump of cleanup hitter Bobby Bonilla and the pitching problems. Unimaginable, really.
Every time they win, it seems Alomar is responsible somehow. A diving stop of a ground ball, perhaps, or a critical at-bat, a runner advanced with a bunt or a fly ball, or a rally-killing throw. Or a three-run homer, which is how Alomar beat the Seattle Mariners yesterday, 8-7, thrilling 47,565 fans at Camden Yards.
Mike Mussina had one of the worst statistical outings of his career, giving up four homers and a career-high 13 hits, and he won anyway, improving his record to 7-2. Arthur Rhodes pitched two strong innings in relief, striking out five, to set up Randy Myers for his 10th save.
None of that would've occurred if it weren't for Alomar. They wouldn't have beaten Seattle two out of three games if it weren't for Alomar. The Orioles might be reaching for .500 if it weren't for Alomar, who's hitting a league-high .384 now.
Manager Davey Johnson moved him to the No. 3 spot in the order to take advantage of his offense a little more, allow Alomar to swing away and drive in runs more and sacrifice himself less. It's worked: Alomar is hitting .471 with 10 RBIs in nine games in the No. 3 spot in the Orioles' lineup, and in that span the Orioles have won seven of nine.
"He's my All-American at another level," said Johnson, finding an imperfectly perfect way to compliment his second baseman.
But much occurred yesterday before Alomar became a factor. Seattle catcher Dan Wilson homered in the second inning, just the start of the Mariners' long-ball explosion against Mussina. Edgar Martinez hit a two-run homer in the third, 424 feet to left; Mussina stayed in his follow-through for several moments, staring at home plate as the ball carried far into the stands.
Jay Buhner hit Mussina's next pitch for his 14th homer, the eighth time this year Seattle has had back-to-back homers, and the fifth time the Mariners have had homers on back-to-back pitches. Buhner lashed another bases-empty shot in the fifth inning, and Wilson added an RBI double, and as the Orioles batted in the bottom of the fifth, Seattle led 7-4.
Mussina was nearing 100 pitches and clearly didn't have his best stuff. However, with the Orioles' bullpen hurting and Johnson feeling as though it was just a matter of time before his team would finish off Seattle starter Sterling Hitchcock, Johnson asked Mussina to pitch the sixth inning.
"Can you give me a shutout inning?" Johnson asked Mussina, as a jockey might apply a subtle whip to a horse.
Mussina replied: "I've been trying for the last five."
Mussina did come out for the sixth, allowing a second hit to Ken Griffey (who began the day 0-for-15 against Mussina in his career), but got out of the mini-jam when Martinez grounded out to short.
Mussina didn't want to go out for the sixth inning, Johnson said, "and I knew that. But he did it. That's what I mean about team effort. . . . Even when he was tired.
"That's what I mean about this ballclub, going out there when they don't want to be out there."
Hitchcock was replaced after five innings, after Rafael Palmeiro's bases-empty homer pulled the Orioles to within 7-5. Ed Hurtado, who, with a 6.62 ERA, had contributed his share of runs to the middle-innings abyss in baseball this year, relieved Hitchcock.
The Orioles' got a pinch-hit single from Luis Polonia with one out in the sixth, but after many throws, Hurtado picked off Polonia; seemingly, the Orioles were finished for the inning.
But Hurtado walked Mike Devereaux. With second baseman Manny Alexander hitting and switch-hitting Alomar due to hit after that, lefty Tim Davis began warming up in the Seattle bullpen.
Alexander singled, putting runners at first and second with two out. Catcher Wilson trotted slowly to the mound and stood there and talked with Hurtado and talked, to where it became obvious he was buying time for Davis to finish getting ready in the bullpen. Shortly into Wilson's soliloquy, Seattle bullpen coach Matt Sinatro lifted his cap off his head and waved audaciously, a signal to Mariners manager Lou Piniella: He's ready if you want him.
Wilson turned on the mound and looked into the Mariners dugout. Piniella didn't budge, and Wilson trudged back behind the plate.
Piniella didn't stay for questions after the game, so there's no telling why he stuck with Hurtado, why he didn't bring in Davis. Alomar has a higher average against right-handers, better power numbers against lefties. But it was a fateful decision.
Alomar waited out the delay, generating a mental game plan for his at-bat. It's something he does, hitting coach Rick Down says, "as good as anyone I've ever seen."