With a long-projected lineup that a season of injury and illness had made more fantasy than reality, the Orioles took another decisive step toward a long-awaited division title yesterday. And maybe something far more satisfying.
A nine-run second inning -- the team's biggest this season -- put away the Detroit Tigers early in what ended as a 12-8 beating, cutting the Orioles' magic number to clinch the American League East crown to three.
After a week of questions, the Orioles slowly are receiving answers.
Eric Davis provided the loudest ones hours after manager Davey Johnson had declared him part of the playoff roster. Davis' answer was two hits and three RBIs in a five-inning stint. Today he will take "a big step" by starting consecutive games for the first time since returning last Monday from colon cancer surgery.
Davis played right field during yesterday's onslaught and highlighted the nine-run second with an opposite-field double. He played well enough for Johnson to assert, "He's back."
When done, the welcome bash included four home runs, four doubles and 14 hits. It also left rookie Nerio Rodriguez (1-1) with his first major-league win in exchange for 3 1/3 innings in support of starter Rick Krivda. But for a team that has sputtered offensively for much of the last three weeks, yesterday's rampage created visions of a turnaround.
"I don't know why, but everybody looked more relaxed today," said catcher Chris Hoiles, who contributed his 12th home run during the second inning. "This lineup looks good. We've been waiting a long time to get guys back. Now with Eric, everybody's in there. It looked good."
The Orioles didn't batter a Triple-A call-up. Tigers starter Scott Sanders was coming off the best consecutive starts of his career. Two starts ago, he threw a one-hit shutout at Texas. Yesterday, his shutout didn't last six hitters.
The monster second inning included seven hits, three homers, a walk, a hit batter and a milestone plate appearance for Davis, when he doubled for his first hit since May 18. The hit broke an 0-for-26 drought that included 10 at-bats since Monday's return.
The feeding frenzy lasted 12 batters with everyone either scoring or driving in a run. The breakout began with Sanders (6-13)
hitting Rafael Palmeiro on the right ankle. After Harold Baines drove a sacrifice fly for the second out and the Orioles' second run, Sanders and reliever Kevin Jarvis allowed seven consecutive hitters to reach.
Hoiles and Mike Bordick highlighted the pounding with back-to-back home runs -- the seventh time that has happened this season but the first since July 15.
For Hoiles, the home run was his second since Aug. 2. For Bordick, it was his second in three days and extended his hitting streak to seven games.
The power show kept on. After a single by Brady Anderson and doubles by Roberto Alomar and Davis and a walk of Palmeiro, B. J. Surhoff crashed his 18th home run. The three-homer inning was the Orioles' first since last Sept. 8. The nine-run inning was their biggest of the season.
The inning more than doubled the team's average run production (4.4) for the month's first 20 games.
Johnson would complain about the win's messiness. A 9-0 lead became precarious enough late that closer Randy Myers was warming when Terry Mathews got the final out. But that was only a nit.
For Davis, this was the perfect end to a perfect week. He walked into an emotional groundswell when Johnson penciled him into right field last Monday, then provided proof yesterday that his return represents more than a morale boost.
"It's easy when you come here without any expectations," said Davis, who was obviously pleased to be granted a postseason spot. "I didn't set any limits on where I wanted to be. I just said I wanted to come back and work my way back to where I was before. It's a little bit less pressurized when you don't push a timetable on it. You just take it as it flows. That's what I've been doing."
Fatigued, Davis pulled himself from the game, explaining, "Actually, I didn't plan on doing that much running. When I played nine innings, I didn't get any hits so I didn't do any running."
When Davis went away May 26, a hamstring pull had consigned him to a designated hitter role. Davis has never found it comfortable, and his return to the outfield has only further freed him up.
"I envy Harold [Baines] and all those guys that can do that. My hamstring was still bothering me. I had to fight through certain things," he said.
Now he isn't fighting. The wild swings that marked Davis' last weeks before leaving the club have been replaced by a tight eye. His reactions on the field and on the bases also are close to what he wants.
"It's tough enough to play this game when you're right. If feels like I haven't missed a beat," he said. "I'm gradually getting my timing to where I recognize the pitches a little earlier. My approach has been good. It's just been a matter of getting your swing."