Flying O's fall with thud, 11-3 Mussina gets pounded, defense is flat as Sox close within half-game

Fernandez throws 3-hitter

5-game win string cut in 'embarrassing' way

September 13, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

There is nothing quite so ugly as a good baseball team playing a bad game. Exhibit A, the Orioles, losing 11-3 to the Chicago White Sox last night.

Mike Mussina pitched poorly, his worst outing since July. The Orioles' defense was lousy and lackluster, and in a complete departure from the last month, they gave away runs.

Chicago right-hander Alex Fernandez can take responsibility for shutting down the Orioles, holding them to three hits, only one after the first inning. But even so, they looked flat, reminiscent of their play in May and June, and it cost them.

The Orioles lost a game in the wild-card standings -- they're a half-game ahead of the White Sox -- and the AL East race; the Yankees, who completed a sweep of Detroit yesterday, are 3 1/2 games ahead of the Orioles.

Mussina (19-10) allowed eight hits and six runs over 3 2/3 innings, giving up homers to Pat Borders and Danny Tartabull, and the Orioles failed to complete their first '96 three-game sweep of a team over .500. They took two out of three from Chicago, but finished the series horribly.

"We used up a lot of emotion to win that game [Wednesday night]," said Mussina, referring to the Orioles' 10-inning, 7-6 victory, "and we came back tonight and didn't play that well.

"You could point your finger to a bunch of stuff. I came out and had a good first inning, but then I wasn't very good after that. Ground balls getting past people. Missing pop-ups. Small things, in the whole scheme of baseball. Tonight it didn't seem like we were as prepared as other nights. But shoot, it's a long year."

Good thing. The Orioles will have 16 more games to forget about this one, which started out so well. Brady Anderson led off the bottom of the first with a walk and Roberto Alomar hammered a liner that fell on top of the right-field wall, a two-run homer. Todd Zeile ripped a shot to right, all the way to the wall, that Danny Tartabull missed, and Zeile hustled into third on the three-base error.

Rafael Palmeiro blasted a long foul to right, and at that moment, there seemed no possible way the Orioles would lose this game. They were pounding everything thrown by Fernandez, they had a 2-0 lead, they had momentum, playing their best baseball since April, riding a five-game winning streak, and above all, they had Mussina on the mound going for his 20th victory. This was an absolute lock.

But good pitchers are good pitchers because they make quick adjustments, and Fernandez is a good pitcher. He struck out Palmeiro, Bobby Bonilla and Cal Ripken in order, and the Orioles never did take advantage of the three-base error. Nonetheless, they had all those things going for them.

And everything changed, in a hurry.

Tartabull singled to open the top of the second, and Harold Baines singled, with Tartabull stopping at second. There was nobody out, and Mussina got Dave Martinez to pop up into foul territory on the third base side, 40 or 50 feet from the bag.

Zeile ran over toward the stands, slowed down, looked over his shoulder, twisted another 90 degrees so that he had almost completed a full circle and was facing the field, and tried to make an over-the-shoulder basket catch. It looked like Willie Mays' immortal catch in the 1954 World Series, except this pop wasn't far from third, and the ball dropped. Whether Zeile simply lost the ball or Ripken -- who had a better angle from shortstop -- didn't take charge and catch the ball, as he usually does, was irrelevant to Martinez. (No error was given on the play.)

What mattered was that Martinez had another swing against a pitcher he had a .417 average against (5-for-12), and Martinez singled up the middle and Tartabull scored.

White Sox catcher Borders, hitting .231 and 1-for-10 in his career against Mussina, was the next batter and Mussina, trying to get ahead in the count, threw him a fastball -- a belt-high fastball. At least that's what Mussina thinks it was. "I don't know," he said, wearing a deadpan expression. "I didn't see it very long."

Borders bashed it into the left-field stands, and Chicago led 4-2. When asked later if the Orioles looked lethargic, manager Davey Johnson replied, "When you jump out 2-0, and they put up four the next inning, I don't care how much enthusiasm you have, that takes the wind out of your sails."

The Orioles: Dead in the water.

A strong crosswind, signaling an approaching storm, began blowing in from left-center field in the top of the third, and the White Sox took advantage. Tartabull slammed a homer to right, the ball rising up and into the stands, pushed by the wind. Baines hit a double off the very top edge of the right-center-field wall -- about as far as a ball can be hit without going out. Archie Corbin began warming up in the Orioles bullpen.

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