In clutch, O's rise to occasion

October 03, 1997|By John Eisenberg

SEATTLE -- It is the most desirable intangible quality of all, the ability to raise your game when it really matters.

The Orioles have it.

In bountiful measures, they have it.

Brother, are they clutch.

As surprising as it was to watch them turn the Mariners into dust particles in the first two games of their American League Division Series, their performance was just the latest example of a pattern they have followed all season.

From the first pitch of their first game, they have shown an uncanny ability to find their "A" game when they really need it.

Go ahead, name a big game that they didn't win this season.

That's right, just one that they really needed and didn't get.

Hello?

You're right, there isn't one.

"It's pretty remarkable," assistant general manager Kevin Malone said in the clubhouse yesterday after the Orioles' 9-3 victory in Game 2. "We have lost our share of games, but when we get to a point where we really need to turn it on, we always do."

It started when they won four in a row from the Yankees early in the season to establish their superiority in the AL East.

After that, they went on the road and swept series from the Mariners and Braves to establish that, well, they had something special going.

When they stumbled long enough to let the Yankees draw close in September, they emerged from a funk to win three of four games at Yankee Stadium and blow open the division race.

Needing a final few wins to make it official, they emerged from another funk to beat Roger Clemens -- with rookie Nerio Rodriguez, no less.

"It's a funny ballclub," manager Davey Johnson said. "We almost got to 40 games over .500 early on and maybe we let down a little after that, but we still always rose to the important occasions."

These two games in the Kingdome now stand as the most vivid and essential examples of all; after meandering through a dull September with only 13 wins in 29 games, they reacted to the glare of the postseason by playing two near-perfect games.

Hitting, pitching, defense, managing -- the Orioles excelled in every aspect, leaving the Mariners stunned and frustrated.

In a span of 18 innings and less than 24 hours, the Orioles rendered irrelevant a September decline so persistent that even the players admitted they were losing confidence.

You just can't get more clutch than that.

"I don't know what it is exactly," Malone said. "It's experience. It's confidence. It's the way the team has bonded all year. There's a lot of will in here. Individual will and team will. You have Cal [Ripken], with maybe the greatest will ever. You have Eric Davis, whose will is speaking for itself. You have [Mike] Mussina fighting for respect and Brady [Anderson] fighting for a contract. There are just a lot of guys with drive. And they were all really committed this season after losing to the Yankees last year."

It doesn't hurt that they have a player who is without peer among his generation as a clutch performer. Roberto Alomar has a .335 postseason batting average, including a .347 mark in 12 World Series games.

Five years ago, he was the MVP in the 1992 ALCS while playing for the Blue Jays. Last year, in front of worked-up crowds booing him in the wake of the John Hirschbeck spitting incident, he hit a home run in Toronto to clinch a wild-card playoff berth for the Orioles, then hit another in Cleveland to nail down the upset of the Indians in the Division Series.

Yesterday, he again provided the big hit -- and silenced another wave of boos -- with a two-run double that gave the Orioles the lead for good in the fifth.

Alomar is the Orioles' undisputed leader in the clutch, which was why Johnson said in September, when Alomar was sidelined with a groin injury, that the Orioles couldn't win it all without him.

But it's not fair to single out Alomar in a year when so many players have come through in big games.

These two games in the Kingdome were perfect metaphors, classic team wins in which virtually every player contributed.

Who didn't?

Not many.

Mike Bordick hit .667, Ripken .556, Anderson .444, B. J. Surhoff and Geronimo Berroa .429 apiece. Jeff Reboulet laid down a two-strike sacrifice bunt in Game 1, setting up a big inning, and Eric Davis got the hit to break open the game. Harold Baines hit a homer yesterday. Bordick and Ripken were superb in the field. The pitching was airtight. Johnson gambled with a watered-down lineup in Game 1 and a lefty-loaded lineup yesterday, and both gambles paid off. The manager is on a roll.

"We all took it up a notch," Bordick said.

Again.

"When you're putting together a team, you never know when something like this is going to transpire," Malone said. "But the character of this club has been to play with confidence. And that's the kind of thing that clearly comes out when the stakes get higher."

Stakes don't get any higher than they do in October, and a team can't respond any better than the Orioles did here.

But then, that's what they have done all season.

This year, the Orioles are the very embodiment of clutch.

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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