Post mark is Key's stamp Vet looks to bring O's postseason success he found in Toronto, N.Y.

Win today would cap sweep

Two title clinchers on resume

also a slump

October 04, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Davey Johnson called his Orioles' September strategy "mix and match." Lou Piniella could call his October predicament "flail and trail."

This afternoon at Camden Yards, Johnson will match Jimmy Key with an opportunity to end a one-sided Division Series in which the Orioles have placed the favored Seattle Mariners in a historically impossible position: No team has ever lost the first two games of a best-of-five format at home then recovered to win.

The Mariners will try to chisel away with left-handed starter Jeff Fassero and a stepped-up attack. To extend the series to a fourth game, they must get past a pitcher who has flourished before in this situation.

Key has appeared in the postseason five times and won the clinching game of the 1992 and 1996 World Series. Last year for the New York Yankees he created the momentum for the Orioles' five-game elimination from the American League Championship Series when he out-dueled Mike Mussina in Game 3 at Camden Yards.

Key carries a 5-2 record and a 3.16 ERA in postseason play, strong enough to negate whatever late-season troubles he may have experienced.

Fassero enters 7-3 in his last 12 starts and 8-4 since the All-Star break. In his only start against the Orioles on May 10, Fassero allowed one earned run in eight innings. Unlike Key, the postseason is a new experience for him.

Key represents the pitching barometer for a season that started powerfully, listed briefly in early summer then clanked its way through September.

When Key paraded his subtle dominance every fifth day in April, May and June, the Orioles distanced themselves from the AL pack. Beginning on Opening Day, Key became only the second starter in team history to start a season 8-0. He owned a 2.30 ERA after the season's second month, didn't lose until May 23 and coughed up one or no earned runs in 11 of his first 15 starts.

Key's season high point came June 13 when he beat the Atlanta Braves to raise his record to 11-1 in the Orioles' 62nd game.

Two days later, the Orioles completed a three-game sweep of the defending National League champions, raising their record to 45-19.

When Key began to lose, so did his team.

The Orioles struggled to 14-15 over their next 29 games while Key went 1-5. The Orioles began the season with a 19-7 record at Camden Yards. Likewise, Key won his first five starts at home, compiling a 1.54 ERA along the way.

The Orioles eventually slogged their way to a 27-28 finish at home. Meanwhile, their veteran 16-game winner fell into the most bizarre trend of a successful season, going 1-8 in his last 11 home starts. Key suffered more than four months -- from May 7 to Sept. 16 -- without a home win.

Call it a jinx or a trend or whatever, Key prefers to call it little more than a nuisance. He dismisses any correlation between Camden Yards' claustrophobic confines and his second-half slide.

"It doesn't matter to me where I pitch," Key said. "I'm a very positive person. People around me will tell you that. I'm going to feed off my past experiences and the successes that I've had and not feed on the negative."

Leave the negative stuff to the admittedly dazed Mariners, whose attack has been long ball-or-bust. Piniella admits that Orioles starters Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson have approached his team differently so far, using more off-speed pitches to keep the middle of his lineup off balance. Ken Griffey and Edger Martinez are a combined 2-for-15. Only three of the Mariners' 18 leadoff hitters have reached base.

Key's forte is off-speed pitches. Johnson has eased him into the postseason by giving him six and five days between his last two starts. He took special note of Key's most recent bullpen session, proclaiming him sound.

"I really don't put as much stock into that [bullpen stuff] as maybe Davey does," Key said. "As long as I'm physically fine, I feel I can always give my team a chance to win the game.

"I know things haven't gone as well in the second half as they did in the first half, or first four months. I've been one to pride myself on consistency throughout my career. I have been inconsistent lately. We now have the postseason and that's what I've been eyeing all year. Now it's up to me to put together four or five starts and help this team win a world championship."

Despite Key's recent adventures at home, Johnson never flinched at starting him in this situation. When the rotation was set, the club anticipated a split and Johnson demanded that the 36-year-old Key be given the ball in what he projected as a tell-all game.

"I think the world of Jimmy Key, even tired. I love having him out on the mound in an adrenalin situation. Five or six innings is all I'm looking for. I can't think of anybody else I'd rather have out there than him," Johnson said.

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