Playoffs another return for O's Hammonds-led 6-5 win in Game 1 seals wild card

Indians win 'cap

September 16, 1997|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The Orioles got their right fielder back yesterday, along with the news they were expecting all along.

In the same game that Eric Davis made his emotional return after colon cancer surgery, the Orioles clinched a return to the postseason by rallying past the Cleveland Indians, 6-5, in the first game of a day-night doubleheader before 41,602 at Camden Yards. They lost the nightcap, 4-1, before 47,110.

Jeffrey Hammonds nearly upstaged his close friend in the opener, hitting a game-winning two-run homer off Indians reliever Eric Plunk with two outs in the seventh inning, the ball traveling an estimated 460 feet into the visitors' bullpen in left-center field. It was Hammonds' 20th homer and the second-longest ever at Camden Yards, surpassed only by the 463-foot shot from Oakland's Pedro Munoz in 1996.

Rarely-seen Armando Benitez (4-4) pitched a scoreless eighth before turning the game over to Randy Myers, who recorded his 42nd save in routine fashion, the same casual approach the Orioles (91-57) used to greet their inclusion in the playoffs.

They can do no worse than repeating last year's wild-card entry after eliminating the Anaheim Angels, but they have a much broader agenda. The AL East has been theirs since Opening Day, and they won't settle for anything less than a division title and long run in the playoffs.

They lead the New York Yankees by six games, with their magic number at nine. Nothing else matters.

Yesterday's achievement? "It doesn't feel that good," said manager Davey Johnson. "Winning the division, that's what we're after. Last year it was the first time in 13 years for this organization. That was important just to get there. This year, just to get there isn't as important. This club has its sights set a little higher."

Higher than securing the wild card on the next-to-last game of the regular season, which last year touched off a wild celebration in the visitors' clubhouse in Toronto.

Higher than making it through the divisional series, as the Orioles did by upsetting Cleveland before losing to the Yankees in the ALCS.

"We knew we'd be in the playoffs," said Rafael Palmeiro, who delivered his 100th RBI in the first inning of Game 1. "We're saving it for when we clinch the division."

Said Hammonds: "Last year, we worked so hard to get the playoff spot and waited until the last minute. This year, we've realized there were a few things as a whole we needed to improve on for us to make this run. Playing the Yankees over the weekend let us know we're not where we want to be. We realize over the next few weeks we have to get healthy and we've got to start playing ball the way we can.

"Right now, we're not running on all cylinders. But we're getting there."

Having Davis back in the lineup brought them a little closer.

He hadn't played since May 25, three weeks before surgery and later consenting to exhausting chemotherapy treatments. He was greeted with a standing ovation in his initial at-bat, flying to right as part of an 0-for-3 afternoon that ended with his removal from the game after five innings.

"It felt pretty normal," he said. "Nothing I did felt weird. I didn't anticipate the sun in my eyes, but everything I did felt normal."

Davis wasn't in the starting lineup for the second game, when the Orioles' only run came on Geronimo Berroa's leadoff homer in the seventh inning off reliever Mike Jackson. Johnson said he would check on his outfielder today before determining his status for the day-night doubleheader.

L "Just having him available is a good feeling," Johnson said.

So was Hammonds' homer off Plunk, which followed a pinch-hit single by Roberto Alomar and made a winner of Benitez.

"Eric's a firm pitcher. He throws the ball very firm. I guessed right and got through it. Anything beyond that, I'd be lying," Hammonds said, grinning.

Hammonds had doubled in a run in the second inning off left-handed starter Brian Anderson and scored on a sacrifice fly by Aaron Ledesma for a 4-0 lead. The Indians fought back with a run in the third inning and three in the fifth, then moved ahead in the seventh after putting runners on the corners with one out against left-hander Arthur Rhodes.

Benitez came in and got Matt Williams to hit a checked-swing roller in front of the mound. He didn't bother looking home before throwing to first, allowing Jim Thome to score standing up.

"I was yelling 'home, home,' " Johnson said. "But my voice doesn't carry that far. I thought he had an easy play at the plate."

Esteban Yan, called up from Triple-A Rochester to lend an arm during this busy stretch of games, gave Johnson 4 2/3 innings in his second major-league start. Though needing 102 pitches to get there, the results were better than his Aug. 19 debut in Kansas City, when he was raked for eight runs and 11 hits over 4 1/3 innings.

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