Never mind that reality said Rafael Palmeiro was his team's leader in home runs and RBIs. Perception, his included, insisted that the Orioles first baseman was something akin to an offensive drag on a team newly dependent on pitching.
Last night after a four-month wait, perception changed against the Kansas City Royals.
Taking a giant step out of his team's lengthening shadow, Palmeiro went from offensive question mark to a powerful exclamation point with the Orioles' 7-3 win before 43,750 at Camden Yards. Palmeiro turned a first-pitch fastball from Royals reliever Hector Carrasco into an eighth-inning grand slam to shatter both a 3-3 tie and the nagging belief that he was a passenger instead of an engineer on the Orioles express.
Palmeiro finished with two home runs and five RBIs and continued what is easily his best stretch of the season. The Orioles are ready to get on board.
Palmeiro's 31st homer rescued the Orioles from a blown 3-0 lead on Chili Davis' three-run homer in the seventh. It allowed them to sidestep consecutive losses for the first time since July 17-18. It helped increase their American League East lead to seven games over the New York Yankees. And it extended the confidence of a productive and elegant hitter who at times this year has been weighed down by last season's phenomenal success.
"I came into the season thinking if I did it last year there was no reason I couldn't do it this year," Palmeiro said, referring to a year in which he hit 39 home runs and drove in 142 runs. "But our team had a different look early on. We've evolved into a great pitching team with good defense and an average offense. It wasn't like that last year. Last year we came out and had to out-slug the other team.
"This year, our offense isn't as good but we're a better team overall. Guys are doing little things to win games. You can't expect to do what we did last year every year, but at least you can approach it that way. Why should we take less going in?"
Now Palmeiro appears to be grabbing all he can on the way out. He has 91 RBIs with 33 games left. Last night gave him seven home runs in his past 10 games, 36 RBIs in his past 35 games and two multiple-home run games in the past eight days. Since ending a 2-for-37 tumble, he has hit .344 in his past 17 games. Against the Royals' right-handed-heavy staff, Palmeiro has seven home runs and 14 RBIs in 37 at-bats. Last night confirmed the suspicion he is again ready to give a hazy offense its focus.
"I don't know how long it's been, but he's been swinging the heck out of the bat," said Johnson. "If we're going to pick it up, he's going to do it for us."
Palmeiro gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead in the fifth by homering against Royals starter Kevin Appier. With the shot, Palmeiro became the first player in Orioles history to construct three consecutive 30-home run seasons.
Jim Gentile never did it. Frank Robinson never did it. Boog Powell never did it. Eddie Murray never did it.
Like much else Palmeiro has done here, the achievement passed without fanfare.
The Orioles came back for more in the sixth inning despite giving away an out on a botched steal attempt by Brady Anderson. With two outs, Aaron Ledesma walked and took third on B.J. Surhoff's single. Appier's wild pitch moved Surhoff into scoring position. Right fielder Geronimo Berroa continued an RBI tear by lining a single to left field that scored both runners for a 3-0 lead. Berroa has 13 RBIs in his last 11 games and 31 in his past 38.
At that point the game looked in hand. Orioles starter Scott Erickson was perfect through four innings. Maybe better than perfect.
Erickson held the Royals without a runner through four innings, striking out five and not allowing a ball out of the infield. Not until Dean Palmer popped out to second in the fifth inning did he allow a ball in the air. With two outs in the fifth, his string of perfection ended at his own hand. Larry Sutton dribbled a grounder to the first-base side of the mound. Erickson fielded it, struggled for a grip, then instead of tagging the runner underhanded a high toss off Palmeiro's glove for a throwing error.
Erickson's flirtation with a no-hitter ended quickly in the sixth. Jermaine Dye, who started the Royals' game-winning rally in Tuesday's ninth inning, singled past Mike Bordick's dive over second base.
"When they got the hit in the sixth I didn't know it was their only hit. I just knew Scottie was on," said catcher Lenny Webster.
And then he was off.
The staff leader in wins, Erickson has pitched at least seven innings and allowed no more than three earned runs over his last seven starts. He has won four of them. His last loss was July 12, nine starts ago. Yet last night's performance represented a setback of sorts. When he found himself in trouble, Erickson attempted to throw rather than think his way out of trouble.