Orioles tee off on Tigers in 6-2 comeback Palmeiro, Bonilla, Hoiles homer in 8th

N.Y.'s lead down to 3

Still 1 behind Chicago

Club at 10 over .500

Coppinger totals 11 K's

September 09, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Every win is a big win now, every loss is devastating, Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro says. It's that time of the season, when nobody pretends he isn't watching the scoreboard to see how the Yankees and White Sox and Red Sox are faring.

The Orioles were six outs away from a devastating loss yesterday. Tigers left-hander Trever Miller, making his first major-league start, gave up one run in six innings, the Orioles botched a rundown play and they trailed by a run. A loss to a last-place team, in September, at home? Terrible.

But in the eighth, the Orioles did what they do best: swing hard and hope the ball clears a fence someplace. Palmeiro hit a two-run shot off reliever Joey Eischen that climbed over the scoreboard in right and recaptured the lead, and Bobby Bonilla and Chris Hoiles followed with homers and the Orioles won, 6-2, and moved 10 games over .500 for the first time all year.

The Orioles (76-66) moved to within three games of first-place New York, the closest they've been to first since June 24. They remain a game behind Chicago in the American League wild-card race, and are 3 1/2 games ahead of Boston.

"We needed that," said Palmeiro. "We need to get to two games [out of first] before we get to New York [Sept. 17-19]. I thought this game was going to slip away."

It looked like it. Rocky Coppinger struck out a career-high 11 in seven innings, pitching one of his best games of the year, but the Orioles couldn't do anything against Miller, who dropped out of the Jamie Moyer mold: A soft-throwing left-hander who throws to the edge of the plate and frustrates the Orioles' bombers. The Orioles are hurting hard throwers who make mistakes over the plate, and Miller simply didn't give them anything to hit, jamming hitters or making them pop up balls off the end of the bat.

The Tigers and Orioles were tied 1-1 after six innings, and Bobby Higginson singled with one out. Melvin Nieves singled to short left, and Higginson aggressively rounded second and challenged left fielder Pete Incaviglia to make a play on him; Incaviglia couldn't.

When Nieves saw Incaviglia throw toward third, he headed toward second. Shortstop Cal Ripken turned and saw Nieves and began running him back to first. An old-fashioned pickle had developed, and Nieves was caught. Ripken threw to Palmeiro, who charged at the runner. As Nieves neared second, Higginson broke toward home, and Palmeiro flipped quickly to Ripken, who applied a tag on Nieves. But Nieves rammed into Ripken, spinning him around, and the small chance Ripken had to get Higginson at home was lost.

Orioles manager Davey Johnson said later that Palmeiro needed to watch Higginson more closely, and if he broke, "then you forget about the other guy [Nieves]."

Palmeiro said, "I don't know what happened. . . . I needed to look the runner back, but you can't let the guy in the rundown off the hook."

Coppinger struck out Andujar Cedeno to end the inning, but he stalked off the mound, disgusted that another run had scored. The Orioles were down a run. Devastating.

"It was a shame," said Johnson, "because we've had a good defense all year. You hate to give a run away like that."

Relievers Richie Lewis and Eischen shut down the Orioles in the seventh, the left-handed Eischen showing a vicious slider and tTC striking out Brady Anderson, a tough pitch for a left-hander like Anderson -- or Palmeiro -- to handle.

Tigers manager Buddy Bell left Eischen in the game for the eighth, with Palmeiro and the switch-hitting Bonilla due up second and third in the inning, after Todd Zeile. Eischen walked Zeile, and Palmeiro walked to the plate, knowing that Eischen was probably going to throw him the slider he had thrown Anderson.

He was right: Eischen threw a breaking ball with his first pitch, strike one. Palmeiro looked for another slider. Eischen threw him a fastball, up and in.

Palmeiro tried to swing quickly enough to catch up, but he didn't make perfect contact. The ball popped off his bat, toward right field.

"Get up! Get up!" first base coach John Stearns yelled. The Orioles rose in unison off the bench and stuck their heads out of the dugout to see if the ball would carry far enough to make a difference.

Bonilla, watching from the on-deck circle, focused on right fielder Nieves, who sprinted back toward the wall. He's going to get it, Bonilla thought, he's going to catch it. Nieves reached the scoreboard. And looked up.

The ball barely cleared, 47,182 fans at Oriole Park roared and Palmeiro pumped a fist. A two-run homer, his 34th homer of the season. "That," Stearns told first base umpire Ted Hendry, "is the biggest hit of the year for this club."

Palmeiro has seen plenty of similar hits fly off and over the scoreboard in right this season, and he was hardly remorseful about the distance of this particular shot. "That's a Camden Yards home run," he told a group of reporters after the game. "A Tiger Stadium home run. A Yankee Stadium home run."

He paused, wondering aloud if there were any other short right-field porches in the AL. His 6-year-old son, Patrick, standing at Palmeiro's feet, said, "The Mariners?"

"Yeah," Rafael said. "That's a Seattle home run."

The Orioles piled on. Bonilla crushed a fastball from reliever Jose Lima well over the scoreboard, the fifth time he and Palmeiro have hit back-to-back homers this year. Four batters later, Chris Hoiles hit a two-run shot.

On the Orioles' bench, somebody suggested a nickname for the offense to Rick Krivda: The Bomb Squad.

"No way," Krivda said. "This is the Launch Squad. They launch."

The countdown is down to 20. Twenty games left in the 1996 season. Every win is a big win, every loss from here on is devastating.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Detroit Tigers

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 7: 35 TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Tigers' Omar Olivares (7-10, 4.88) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (10-11, 5.28)

Tickets: 5,200 remain.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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