Wells' ace deals O's card lead Lefty escapes rocky 1st and goes sterling 7 1/3 to stop White Sox, 5-1

Palmeiro hits 35th homer

Orioles' long bottom of 1st refreshes Wells

September 11, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

The Orioles exchanged handshakes after David Wells beat the Chicago White Sox, 5-1, last night, and Davey Johnson hustled back to his office, leaned back in the chair behind his desk, and flicked on a TV to see the final inning of the New York Yankees playing Detroit.

On the screen, New York was desperately trying to hang onto a 9-8 lead in the ninth inning. "What I'd like to see here," Johnson said, "is for somebody to pop a two-run homer."

But before Johnson watched the bottom of the ninth, he described how well Wells had pitched on three days' rest, how much he battled after a trying first inning, how much his effort meant to the Orioles, who moved ahead of Chicago in the wild-card race. "A gutsy performance," Johnson said.

To say the least. Wells survived a brutally long first inning and sweltering heat to pitch 7 1/3 innings. Roberto Alomar set up one rally with a bunt and another with a double, and Rafael Palmeiro hit a two-run homer for the Orioles, who've hit at least one homer in each of their past 12 games.

"If we continue to keep playing the way we have the last month," Alomar said, "we'll catch somebody."

They already have: If the playoffs were to begin today, the Orioles would play the Cleveland Indians in the divisional series. But that's a long way off, 18 games to play, including two more in this three-game series with Chicago.

Wells (11-13) agreed to pitch the first game, wanting to give the Orioles a jump-start in this series, but the White Sox tested his fortitude immediately, loading the bases with nobody out in the first. Wells and Danny Tartabull waged a 13-pitch war, Tartabull fouling off eight pitches before striking out on a hard curveball.

Robin Ventura hit a sacrifice fly and Ray Durham hit a high fly to Brady Anderson for the final out, but while Wells had gotten out of the jam in good shape -- the White Sox scoring just one run -- he was exhausted.

Wells plodded back to the dugout, his uniform drenched in sweat from the effort of throwing 28 pitches. For Wells to last into the late innings, he would have to be more pitch efficient. He hoped the Orioles would rally, to give him time to catch his breath.

Wells retreated into the air-conditioned clubhouse, walking around, trying to keep his lower back loose, watching the Orioles hit against Kevin Tapani. He needed a little break, but the Orioles' hitters gave him a virtual vacation.

Brady Anderson walked. Alomar had a bunt single, and both runners advanced on a throwing error by catcher Ron Karkovice. Todd Zeile grounded out, and Anderson scored to tie the game at 1. Tapani threw pitch after pitch: Palmeiro flied to left, but Bobby Bonilla walked. Wells went to the dugout to sit down, as Tapani's pitch count climbed to over 25. Cal Ripken fought Tapani, before lining out to right on Tapani's 33rd pitch of the inning. "That," Wells said later, "was really big."

Wells returned to the mound, refreshed, like a boxer given 10 minutes after a tough first round instead of one, and he controlled the White Sox the rest of the way. He threw just seven pitches in the second, 12 in the third, 11 in the fourth, seven in the fifth. A breeze.

"He started throwing strikes," said Chicago shortstop Ozzie Guillen. "In the big leagues, you throw strikes and you have a good chance to win."

Tapani, meanwhile, continued to labor. As the fifth inning began, already had thrown 78 pitches, after needing only 85 pitches in 7 1/3 innings in his last start. With two outs and nobody on in

the fifth, Alomar, who has emerged from the 10-day malaise that began when he contracted a flu from teammate Cesar Devarez, pulled a double into the right-field corner.

Tapani threw an inside fastball to Zeile, and as Zeile swung and made contact, his bat broke -- a lucky break. The ball blooped off the shattered bat and carried into short left, where it fell in front of Tony Phillips.

Alomar had started moving toward third as Tapani went into his motion, and as Zeile made contact, Alomar was off, sprinting toward third, knowing that even if Phillips reached the ball quickly, third base coach Sam Perlozzo would send him home; there were two outs, Phillips has an erratic throwing arm, and the score was tied.

Phillips gloved the ball on a short-hop, and unloaded his throw quickly. Alomar raced around third, and about a third of the way down the line, he could see Karkovice moving slightly up the third base line, and Palmeiro waving frantically to him to slide toward first base. "After that," Palmeiro said, "it was up to his own instincts."

Phillips' throw arrived at the home plate area ahead of Alomar, but Alomar slid on his left side, in fair territory and away from Karkovice, and his foot skidded across home. Safe. "He never touched me," Alomar said. Orioles, 2-1.

Before any of the 43,320 fans at Camden Yards could settle back into their seats, Tapani threw Palmeiro a fastball and Palmeiro whacked it over the right-field wall, a two-run shot.

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