Smith's HR polishes off Royals, 5-3 Down 3-0 in 9th, O's 3 homers erase otherwise bad day

Belcher dominated 8 1/3

Palmeiro, Bonilla also homer, boost Erickson

June 23, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Kansas City Royals closer Jeff Montgomery threw a low fastball and Orioles left fielder Mark Smith swung and, through his hands, he felt contact. Imperfect contact.

Smith knew he hit a high fly, and that he missed a chance to drive a very hittable pitch and break a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the ninth. He dropped his head and flipped his bat away and headed toward first, in a half-hearted run. On the bench, some of Smith's teammates sat passively. They knew it was an out. Royals center fielder Johnny Damon tracked the ball, drifting back.

And back. And back.

Those in the Orioles bullpen came off their seats, watching the ball as it fell toward them. Chris Hoiles said aloud, "That ball has a chance to go out."

Damon bumped against the green padding of the left-center-field wall and stopped. The ball kept going, and when it landed in the bullpen for a home run, the Orioles had, in a one-inning burst of offense, officially erased a 3-0 Kansas City lead and eight innings of bad baseball with the 5-3 victory.

The Royals carried the three-run lead into the bottom of the

ninth, and the Orioles hit three homers within a span of six batters to win their third straight game. A two-run homer from TTC Rafael Palmeiro to get them close, a bases-empty shot from Bobby Bonilla to tie the score, and Smith's game-winning two-run homer to win.

Orioles manager Davey Johnson shook his head at the improbability of it all, victory after Kansas City starter Tim Belcher so thoroughly dominated for eight innings. "We weren't smelling anything. We weren't even close to anything," Johnson said.

No. The Orioles performed like comic figures for eight innings, Keystone Cops on defense, stooges at the plate. The Royals stole five bases in the first four innings, the Orioles committed three errors, two on the same play and could've been charged with another. The Royals hit rollers and bleeders and bloopers and careened around the bases, and the Orioles watched.

Kansas City scored two in the first inning, another in the second, and constantly threatened, putting runners in scoring position in the second, third, fourth and fifth innings. But Orioles starter Scott Erickson, seemingly doomed to defeat, continued to compete and made good pitches and stopped the bleeding. "We could've had seven or eight runs, easy," said Royals manager Bob Boone. "It's been our Achilles' heel all year long. We could've blown that game open 10 times. Instead, we let Erickson get out of it."

Not that it mattered, though, not the way Belcher was pitching. The Orioles only had four base runners in the first eight innings, nobody reaching third base, and they had a 2-28 record when trailing after eight innings.

Erickson Belcher pitched well against the Orioles last Sunday but was relieved with a 4-1 lead and had to watch as left-hander Jason Jacome blew the advantage. No way that would happen again.

Belcher retired the Orioles in order in the eighth, and although Montgomery warmed up in the bullpen before the ninth, there was no question Belcher would start the inning. "I was going to give him every opportunity to finish the game the way he pitched," Boone said. "The plan was to have Montgomery ready for the call, but Tim was going to finish the game."

Luis Polonia grounded weakly back to Belcher to open the inning. Two outs to go.

Roberto Alomar, hitless in three at-bats, hit a ball between Damon and left fielder Tom Goodwin -- the first ball hit out of the infield in the air since the fourth inning.

Boone might've called for Montgomery then, but Belcher's pitch count was relatively modest, 112, and besides, Palmeiro had looked terrible in three at-bats, taking a called third strike and bouncing a ball back to Belcher.

Belcher threw ball one and came back with a forkball. A bad forkball. Palmeiro swung and bashed it far over the fence in right-center field, his 17th homer.

That was all for Belcher, and Montgomery trotted in from the Royals bullpen, carrying his glove and a little emotional baggage: He had blown his last two save chances, the first time that had occurred since 1994.

Johnson was glad to see Belcher out of the game, for the sake of Bonilla, the next hitter. "Bonilla," Johnson said later, "couldn't hit [Belcher] with a paddle."

Montgomery seized the advantage, going ahead one ball and two strikes, and threw a fastball down and in. "Name one lefty [hitter]," Bonilla said afterward, "who doesn't like it low and in."

Bonilla smacked a line drive that, off the bat, had the trajectory of your basic single over the infield. Except this line drive kept going, landing in the first rows of the stands in right-center field. Orioles first base coach John Stearns pumped his fist. Bonilla bounced around the bases, barely touching the ground, like a gazelle. Somewhere, misery overwhelmed Tim Belcher.

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