Mussina toast of the town Ace's two-hit effort again beats Johnson, sends Orioles to ALCS

'Two other steps to take'

Reboulet, Berroa homer as O's solve Seattle lefty for 5th time this year

Game 4, Orioles 3, Mariners 1

October 06, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Mike Mussina started the game in shadows, cloaked as much by the overwhelming presence of the Seattle Mariners' Randy Johnson as by the sun setting below the roof of Camden Yards.

He finished in the brilliant afterglow of Baltimore's most powerful baseball moment since Cal Ripken set his iron man standard two Septembers ago. Considered an iffy postseason pitcher a week ago, Mussina and a flawless bullpen grabbed onto home runs by Jeff Reboulet and Geronimo Berroa along with Ripken's RBI single, cradled them, and walked away with a two-hit, 3-1 win to clinch the American League Division Series by the same 3-1 margin.

The win places the Orioles in their second consecutive AL Championship Series, beginning Wednesday night against either the Cleveland Indians or the New York Yankees.

"I think it would only be fitting we eliminate the Yankees," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "The record shows they're the second-best ballclub in the AL this year. If Cleveland doesn't do it, it's going to be left up to us. And I'm up for it."

And the Orioles are again on a roll. At exactly 6: 49 p.m., first baseman Rafael Palmeiro caught Mike Bordick's chest-high throw. Closer Randy Myers, who got Jay Buhner to ground into the final out, punched the sky.

And the Orioles, momentarily relieved of the pressure that followed them into the postseason, rushed from their dugout to celebrate the first clinching of a postseason series at home since 1970.

The manager lagged behind, raised his fists and blew a kiss to his wife, Susan.

Roberto Alomar hugged Ripken, who helped carry his team on a back that only weeks before had told him not to play.

The team that only exchanged a businessman's handshake after clinching its division chose to embrace, urged on by an appreciative crowd of 48,766 that witnessed the improbable.

For the fifth time this season the Orioles won when facing the game's most intimidating pitcher. The rest of the league did so only four times. For the fourth time the Orioles left Johnson with a loss. For the third time, Mussina took the win despite being ranked the underdog.

"I think other people -- because of the tension surrounding a playoff series and the matchup with Randy Johnson -- gave them the edge," said center fielder Brady Anderson. "It's mind-boggling to me because he [Mussina] has got the best winning percentage among active pitchers. It's not that important how other people perceive him. He's a pure winning pitcher."

The Orioles won just as they had most of the season, with solid starting pitching backed by seamless defense and an overpowering bullpen. They held baseball's best lineup to 11 runs and a .218 average while striking out 42 against only seven walks, an unfathomable ratio indicative of the staff's refusal to give in to any hitter.

In the Orioles' three wins, the Mariners placed only five of 27 leadoff hitters on base. Only one of their runs began as a walk. The Orioles scored nine runs that began with a pass.

They worked Johnson over for two first-inning runs despite shadows that ran between the pitching mound and the plate.

Reboulet homered on a fastball, his second home run of the season against the 6-foot-10 left-hander. Berroa doubled on a slider. Ripken singled on time.

Said Ripken, in the midst of a long-awaited offensive revival: "Anytime you face Randy Johnson, the best thing you can say is, 'Stay close.' If you can score first, it gives you a little bit of an edge early. When you score first, it gives you a chance to hang in there a little bit longer."

"It's not the regular season, but you do the best you can to treat it like it's a baseball game," Mussina said. "They're shooting off fireworks and the crowd's cheering all the time. But you still treat it like it's a baseball game."

If he wasn't perceived as a big-game pitcher before, he is now. Refusing to budge, his only runs allowed in the series came on three bases-empty home runs.

"Not taking anything away from what Randy did. But he was simply overshadowed by the way Mike Mussina pitched," said shortstop Alex Rodriguez, one of only three Mariners regulars to hit better than .250 for the series. "He went out there and pitched like he was a four- or five-time Cy Young Award winner."

Mussina entered the series advertised as a pitcher winless in big games. He left as its unofficial MVP, having allowed three runs and seven hits while striking out 16 in a claustrophobic span of five days.

"That was better than his first win, if that's possible," said Buhner, referring to Mussina's win in a 9-3 Game 1. "You go up there full of confidence and then you take that quiet 0-fers. He's like a Roger Clemens in his own way."

Mussina served notice with a defining performance. He pitched seven innings, allowing only a second-inning home run to Edgar Martinez and a single to Rob Ducey. He faced only two more than the minimum number of hitters his last five innings.

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