O's cut Big Unit to size With intensity of old, O's deck Johnson for 4th time for Mussina 4-run fifth buries lefty Running game revived as O's knock swagger from Seattle in opener

Game 1: Orioles 9, Mariners 3

October 02, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- The Orioles began their postseason experience last night with a test of memory. They passed without a mistake.

Not only did the Orioles remember how to frustrate Seattle Mariners starter Randy Johnson, but they also revived the kind of feisty attack that allowed them to blow away the rest of their division in April and May.

The result was something powerful: a 9-3 win over the Mariners in Game 1 of a Division Series that supposedly had found the Orioles at a bad time.

Expressionless since August, the veteran Orioles played with intensity and a decidedly second-string starting lineup. It produced two stolen bases, two home runs and stoked a four-run fifth inning with a two-strike sacrifice bunt.

In the biggest win of a seven-year career, Orioles starter Mike Mussina thoroughly outpitched Johnson, who allowed five runs on seven hits in five innings. Mussina struck out nine and walked none while allowing only two runs and five hits in seven innings.

By coming up huge, Mussina turned the series upside down. The Mariners either win today or come to Baltimore Saturday having to sweep three games.

"All year we've been able to rise to the occasion," crowed assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "This was another example of our ability to turn up the intensity and win a big game."

The Orioles won with their bats, their arms and their feet. This was April in October. Cal Ripken had three hits. Eric Davis had a game-breaking two-run single in the decisive fifth inning. Geronimo Berroa and Chris Hoiles homered. But the big-swinging Orioles won largely because they rediscovered the significance of putting the game in motion. They attempted three steals and forgot about the dull station-to-station style that slowed them in September.

Four runs began as walks. Two runs were helped along by a sacrifice bunt. Jeffrey Hammonds created havoc during a four-run fifth inning when he broke too soon from first base but inspired a throwing error.

And what's all the fuss about this Big Unit?

The Orioles trashed Johnson like yesterday's newspaper. They tore into him easily then disposed of him early. Four times Johnson has started against them this season. Four times the Orioles have won. Three times Johnson has taken the loss. In those four starts, Johnson has surrendered a 6.38 ERA in 24 innings pitched. The Orioles have outscored the Mariners 34-14 in those games.

"I've seen him throw very good, but I've never seen him throw that good against us," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said.

It was the Mariners who instead looked as if they were playing out of position. Twice they lost outs at first base. They suffered 11 strikeouts, nine against a pinpoint Mussina, while Johnson struck out only three of 23 batters.

"I was happy that the Big Unit got all the press before the game," the Orioles' Johnson said. "It was like Mike Mussina was %J chopped liver. I thought that was the greatest thing we had going for us."

In response to Mariners manager Lou Piniella steadfastly refusing to offer his lineup on Tuesday, Johnson presented the facade of considering putting Rafael Palmeiro and B. J. Surhoff in the lineup for Jerome Walton and Hammonds. In reality, the decision was made before Tuesday's workout.

"You win pennants with 25 players, not with eight, 10 or 12. It doesn't matter who I put out there. They were going to play very well," said Johnson, reveling in another winning gambit. He greeted Malone and general manager Pat Gillick with hard handshakes.

The mini-controversy left Johnson in a near no-win situation. If he played Palmeiro, Surhoff and Roberto Alomar, he exposed himself to criticism for tinkering with a winning formula. By returning to his "B team," Johnson would be flayed by national media for benching a 110-RBI man, his best clutch hitter and a second baseman who had hit .500 in his last 19 games. Coming off a 13-16 September didn't help.

"I'll just sleep better tonight. That's all," a satisfied Johnson said. "A lot of times you'll take a gamble that you think is a calculated gamble. It might be at the expense of the manager, but I've done it my whole career."

Johnson argued before the game that left-handed hitters, especially Palmeiro, lacked the patience against a dominant left-hander such as Johnson.

For a downsized offensive team still addicted to the big swing and the big inning, patience was last night's creed. Johnson insisted that the Big Unit not be given one- or two-pitch at-bats.

"They put the ball in play. They handle the bat. They really don't have big strikeout hitters in their lineup," commented Piniella, who admitted Johnson will now start Sunday's Game 4. " I don't have any other explanation."

Here's one: Johnson may be pitching at less than his best. He was consistently clocked from 88-91 miles per hour, at least 6 mph below his norm. Between innings, he threw more off-speed pitches than fastballs, suggesting something amiss physically.

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