O's within 1 of title after 3-2 victory Rodriguez, Rhodes, Benitez, Myers combine for win over Clemens

Yankees fall 4 back

Alomar's game-winner comes after knockdown

September 24, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- Before the game, the wait had seemed almost intolerable. Afterward, it bordered on magical.

Davey Johnson smiled easily. Assistant general manager Kevin Malone roamed a busy clubhouse. Desperately needing a win, the Orioles rediscovered some magic last night. It hitched a ride into SkyDome on the rookie right arm of Nerio Rodriguez, transferred to Roberto Alomar's second-inning stare-down of Roger Clemens and reached the late innings on a seamless bullpen effort by Arthur Rhodes, Armando Benitez and Randy Myers.

The result was a 3-2 Orioles win over the Toronto Blue Jays. Combined with an eight-run rally by the Cleveland Indians against the New York Yankees, the Orioles shriveled their magic number for clinching the AL East to one.

This was enough to cause general manager Pat Gillick, assistant GM Kevin Malone and director of media relations John Maroon to fill a stairwell with their yelling. After 14 years of waiting, the Orioles are close enough to sense the thrill of a wire-to-wire division title.

"Today did a lot for us," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "I think this reminded everyone of how well we can play. We beat a great pitcher by getting contributions from a lot of people. That's us."

Rodriguez (2-1) gave a tough-man performance with his third appearance in seven days.

The streaking Alomar provided the perfect metaphor for a team needing to pick itself up quickly. Three times, Clemens (21-7) came inside against Alomar after the Orioles' first-inning two-run breakout, brushing him back once and twice knocking him down. The third time came on a 1-1 pitch in the seventh inning. Johnson ran from the dugout to demand umpire Chuck Meriwether warn Clemens. The Orioles manager received an ejection instead of satisfaction.

"It was more than one pitch. I said, 'Give him a warning. That's what you're supposed to do,' " Johnson said.

Alomar had already passed a test in the second inning. He was brushed back on the first pitch, then knocked down by a running fastball that started at his right ear flap.

With Mike Bordick on first base with one out, Alomar immediately answered by turning on Clemens' next pitch for a one-hop double to the right-field wall, accounting for a 3-0 lead. The extra-base hit would become huge because Clemens found himself after Alomar's double, retiring 15 straight with only two balls leaving the infield.

The larger message was sent by Alomar's refusal to bend before one of the game's most intimidating pitchers.

His two hits leave him 26-for-54 in 15 games since returning to the lineup Sept. 8 from a nagging groin pull. While some within the clubhouse speculated that Alomar's first-inning bunt single may have infuriated Clemens, others believe it was part of a premeditated pattern of intimidation.

"It always happens with him. It's usually against whoever's hot. That's typical of how he pitches," said Hoiles, citing a June 26 start at Camden Yards when the right-hander buzzed B.J. Surhoff after time had been called.

"Robbie's special, one of the best players in baseball. You're not going to be able to intimidate him," Johnson said.

Alomar dreads playing in Toronto. He was blistered for leaving as a free agent and the hard feelings only intensified when last year's spitting incident with umpire John Hirschbeck took place at SkyDome. The second baseman dressed quietly and chose not to comment after the game.

The American League's presumptive Cy Young Award winner, Clemens was pushing for the Blue Jays' single-season win record and a sub-2.00 ERA. He was the AL pitcher of the month for August, had struck out 29 in his previous three starts and had allowed one home run in his previous 70 1/3 innings pitched. But no one told Rodriguez.

Only two years since being converted from catching at Single-A, Rodriguez attacked a major-league lineup. Through five innings, he allowed only a second-inning double to Carlos Delgado and a walk to Juan Samuel among just 61 pitches.

"It's exciting to pitch against someone like Clemens," Rodriguez said through coach Carlos Bernhardt, who doubled as interpreter. "It's exciting to pitch in a game like this tonight."

With runners at first and second in the second inning, he got Shawn Green to foul out to third base, then ended the inning with Charlie O'Brien's fly ball to center.

Protecting a 3-0 lead, Rodriguez finally wilted in the sixth inning. His fade began with a leadoff walk to No. 9 hitter Tomas Perez. Center fielder Shannon Stewart followed with a triple into the left-center field gap for the Blue Jays' second hit and first run.

Alex Gonzalez followed with a sacrifice fly to left field that scored Stewart for a 3-2 game. At that point, Johnson had seen enough. He pulled Rodriguez for Rhodes and prayed that a recently skittish bullpen would hold.

Rhodes pitched without a brace for the first time since suffering a pulled muscle in his right side last month. He got five outs and in the seventh froze Samuel at second base after he had singled and stole.

"This was a big game for me. It was a big game for the team. Everyone performed the way they're expected to perform tonight," he said.

Johnson expected more from his bullpen last night and he got it. Less than 24 hours after it couldn't handle a three-run lead against the Tigers, Benitez pitched a scoreless eighth before Myers pitched a perfect ninth.

Magic number

1: An Orioles win or a Yankees loss would give the Orioles the AL East title.

AL East standings

........... W ... L ... GB ... GR

Orioles ... 95 .. 62 .. -- ... 5

Yankees ... 91 .. 66 .. 4 .... 5

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: SkyDome, Toronto

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (9-6, 4.02) vs. Blue Jays' Omar Daal (1-0, 4.09)

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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