Orioles avert disaster, but what's next?

September 20, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

NEW YORK -- It doesn't get much more bleak.

The bases were loaded. Cecil Fielder had already hit two homers. The Orioles trailed, 6-1.

They had lost Game 1, 9-3. Now it was the fourth inning of Game 2, and their starting pitcher, David Wells, was already out of the game.

Only in baseball could a team rally from such dire straits for its most important victory of the season.

Only in a pennant race could a team go from utter dejection to utter elation so quickly, and still not know what tomorrow would bring.

The Orioles won Game 2, 10-9.

They won because Terry Mathews retired Fielder and went on to pitch 3 1/3 innings for the victory after five runs scored on his first six pitches in Game 1.

They won because Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera allowed three runs in the eighth after pitching 1 2/3 perfect innings the previous night.

And they won because Yankees manager Joe Torre stuck too long with David Cone, who was coming off his abbreviated start in Tuesday night's rainout.

Would you believe Randy Myers earned the save?

We kid you not.

Bernie Williams hit a two-run shot off Alan Mills for his second homer of the game to pull the Yankees within one run with one out in the ninth.

Mills then struck out Fielder, before manager Davey Johnson summoned Myers to strike out pinch hitter Tino Martinez for the final out.

Still with us?

The Orioles probably won't win the AL East now that they trail the Yankees by four games with 10 to play. But their lead over surging Seattle in the wild-card race is still 1 1/2 games.

With seven games remaining against Toronto, the Orioles just might have salvaged their postseason chances in Game 2, just hours after their most embarrassing defeat of the season.

Maybe Torre wants them to get there, the way he managed last night.

He could have removed Cone during the fifth, before Todd Zeile hit a two-run single to cut the lead to 6-3.

He should not have allowed him to start the sixth after Cone already had qualified for the victory.

And he definitely should have removed him during the Orioles' ensuing three-run rally, in which Cone faced four batters before getting an out.

For those wishing to send thank-you notes, Torre's address is Yankee Stadium, Bronx, N.Y., 10451.

Every Oriole should write.

Graeme Lloyd finally replaced Cone after Roberto Alomar's sacrifice fly tied the score, but by then the game had turned.

The Orioles took the lead in the seventh on a single by Mark Parent, but the Yankees came back to tie the score on Williams' leadoff homer off Mathews in the bottom half.

It was the only blemish on Mathews' remarkable performance, considering the beating he took in Game 1. Mills replaced him in the eighth, one night after suffering a crushing 3-2 loss in 10 innings.

That defeat, followed by the Game 1 rout, followed by the five-run deficit in Game 2, had the Yankees fans chanting "Sweep!" in the fourth inning.

And even after the stunning comeback in Game 2, Mike Mussina was so ineffective in the opener, it raised disturbing questions about his Orioles' future.

Mussina needed to come up big, and set the tone for the doubleheader.

And he showed nothing, lasting only two innings, allowing three hits and five walks, looking not the least bit comfortable.

His performance was so dismal, it might change the way the Orioles perceive his long-term value to the club.

Mussina is a tremendous competitor, but he prefers to work under ideal circumstances, and in a pennant race that's not always possible.

He threw 16 pitches in Tuesday's rainout, and didn't seem enthusiastic about returning to the mound so quickly.

"He was just uncomfortable coming back," manager Davey Johnson said. "It broke up the normal routine for him.

"He handled the three days' rest pretty good a few times, then complained of stiffness, and we backed off with him. Maybe this was asking too much."

Perhaps, but Mussina also blew a 2-0 lead in his previous start against Chicago, allowing six runs in 3 2/3 innings.

He's 13-6 lifetime in September, but this is his first experience pitching in games of this magnitude.

The Orioles need more.

It's the time of year when a team asks more from its ace. Cone has been through it. So has Orel Hershiser. So has Randy Johnson.

At 180 pounds, perhaps Mussina isn't strong enough to carry such a load. But if that's the case, the Orioles need to find another front-line starter.

Mussina has the highest winning percentage among active major leaguers (.687). He has thrown 228 1/3 innings this season. He's a legitimate ace.

But it's possible the Orioles will think twice now about signing him to a long-term contract.

That's an issue for another day.

The Orioles were dead, and now they're alive.

Only in baseball.

Only in a pennant race.

Only in this wacky soap opera of a season that isn't over yet.

Pub Date: 9/20/96

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