Orioles clinch division title Victory in Toronto gives club first crown since 1983

September 25, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TORONTO -- Officially painting the American League East orange and black, the Orioles last night captured their first division title since 1983.

They did it by defeating the Toronto Blue Jays, 9-3, at SkyDome. They also became only the sixth team in major-league history to lead from the first day to the last.

"This is something rare something extremely special, and I think everyone connected with it from Mr. [Peter] Angelos on down appreciates it," said Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "This didn't happen by accident. For us to finish ahead of the defending world champions [the New York Yankees] in arguably one of the toughest divisions in baseball is something to be proud of."

Last night's long-awaited clinch at SkyDome -- the same setting where the Orioles claimed last year's wild-card berth -- capped a season in which a pitching-dependent team took a commanding lead early, wobbled briefly around the All-Star break, then survived an unsettling stretch run that dropped its lead to three games entering Tuesday night's game.

Manager Davey Johnson called a pre-game clubhouse meeting that night, emphasizing the team's overall accomplishments, then watched rookie Nerio Rodriguez out-duel 21-game winner Roger Clemens as the Yankees blew a seven-run lead against the Cleveland Indians.

The wire-to-wire title was the third in American League history. Only the epic 1927 Yankees and 1984 Detroit Tigers had led every day of an AL schedule. Both teams rolled to World Series titles.

"It's special. You're the last one standing," Johnson said. "I think they realize what a feat this is. It has meaning. You can't do it much better, especially considering we're in the same division as last year's world champions."

Unlike their two predecessors, the Orioles had to overcome significant injuries and illness, including the absence of right fielder Eric Davis for 3 1/2 months because of colon cancer. Along with Davis, projected No. 4 starting pitcher Rocky Coppinger, catcher Chris Hoiles and second baseman Roberto Alomar spent extensive time on the disabled list, and center fielder Brady Anderson and third baseman Cal Ripken have played through rib, knee and back injuries. Ripken, who started his 2,474th consecutive game last night, is considering off-season surgery to alleviate a bulging disk in his lower back.

"This is what you play for -- to win," said designated hitter Geronimo Berroa, acquired on June 27 from the league's worst team, the Oakland Athletics. "Everybody is still playing right now. But this team is playing to win. There is a difference."

After falling behind 2-0 last night, the Orioles rallied for a five-run sixth inning and a two-run seventh. Rafael Palmeiro had four RBIs, including a game-tying sacrifice fly and a two-run homer. Scott Kamieniecki pitched seven-plus strong innings for the victory.

The Orioles open postseason play on Wednesday in Seattle in a best-of-five Division Series against the Mariners. If they defeat the Mariners, the Orioles would face the winner of the Yankees-Indians playoff for the American League pennant and a berth in the World Series. The last time the Orioles won their division, they went on to a world championship.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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