Defeat is devastating for a team expected to win, or it can be the final manifestation of achievement for underdogs who've gone further than expected.
Defeat for the Orioles, eliminated by the Yankees, 6-4, yesterday in the American League Championship Series, is nothing if not confusing. The Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, and yet many of them leave believing they should've beaten New York.
They played well the final two months and won a wild-card berth, and yet there will be many, many changes in the off-season. They hit more homers than any team ever, and the front office intends to alter the essential nature of the team and attempt to inject more speed.
They played well to beat Cleveland in the Division Series, and they played so poorly against New York, their pitching, hitting and defense failing them all at once. The Orioles will wonder if the series would've played out differently if 12-year-old Jeff Maier hadn't stuck out his glove and turned a potential flyout into a homer in Game 1 -- and they will wonder how they managed to win one game, considering how much the Yankees dominated them at Camden Yards. New York went 9-0 at Camden Yards this season; no wonder 48,718 departed silently yesterday.
"This was an interesting year," said manager Davey Johnson. "We made some progress in the right direction. We did some things better. We all know each other a little bit better. We need to do a little more."
General manager Pat Gillick said, "I'm really happy. I'm not totally satisfied."
They can't be, after the way the Yankees thumped the Orioles in the final three games of the series, exposing their offense as one-dimensional: Of the 19 runs the Orioles scored in the ALCS, 18 came on homers or outs. The Orioles had no extended rallies, no collection of hits and runs.
The Yankees ran aggressively on the bases and made things happen, and their play up the middle, from shortstop Derek Jeter to center fielder Bernie Williams (the ALCS Most Valuable Player), was spectacular. The Orioles' defense played poorly, and when they did make mistakes, the pitching did not cover for it. Orioles starter Scott Erickson provided a classic example of this yesterday.
Jim Leyritz hit a homer leading off the third for the Yankees, giving New York a 1-0 lead. Derek Jeter singled one out later. Then Wade Boggs hit a tapper toward the third base side of the mound.
Erickson, falling off to the first-base side on his follow-through, tried to recover, reached down -- and missed the ball. An infield hit. Runners on base after a mistake: It's a situation that Erickson has rarely escaped this season, and he didn't this time, either.
Williams hit a roller toward the right side, with Boggs on the move toward second, and Alomar appeared to position his hands to make his quick, sideways flip to shortstop. He also had to be aware that Williams was running hard down the first-base line, as always.
So many things to think about. The ball rolled right through his legs. "That ball tricked me," said Alomar. "I thought it was going to take a hop but it stayed down."
Jeter scored and Boggs moved to third, and Alomar shook his head slightly and mimicked the move he might've made, a throw to first.
The Orioles caught a break on the next play, when Boggs got a terrible jump off third on a grounder to second by Martinez, and Alomar threw him out at the plate. Williams stopped at second, Martinez reached first.
Parent and Erickson decided they wanted to pitch Fielder up and in, and Erickson threw the ball in far enough that Fielder made contact in the middle of the bat, rather than at the end of the barrel. But he got enough of it to drive it over the left-field wall, a three-run homer.
Strawberry followed with a tremendous homer to the Yankees' bullpen beyond left-center field, 448 feet, and the Orioles, in need of three straight victories against a team they'd beaten only four times all year, found themselves down six in the third.
"That's the only time this season," said left fielder Brady Anderson, "that when we got behind like that, it felt a little deflating. The way they got six runs was a little bit unusual. We wanted to jump out and get ahead."
Alomar said, "I don't think that [error] was why we lost the game. They just played better baseball than us I think [Erickson] left a few pitches up in the zone and they took advantage of it."
For three innings after that, the stunned Orioles tried to right themselves, but as they had done in games 3 and 4, they swung at pitches out of the strike zone. Yankees starter Andy Pettitte, who didn't allow a hit until the fourth inning, needed only 100 pitches to throw eight innings, only 58 of those strikes -- and he surrendered only one walk.
"When we were ahead in the count," said Parent, "we expanded the strike zone. We were a little bit too aggressive."