One bad pitch and it's a whole new series

October 10, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

All season, the Orioles won with their fabulous bullpen.

Last night was different.

Last night was crushing.

The Orioles were four outs away from victory, four outs away from moving within two games of their first World Series appearance since 1983.

And then Armando Benitez, perhaps the most dominant setup man in the game, allowed a three-run homer to Marquis Grissom.

Indians 5, Orioles 4.

Suddenly, we've got a series.

The Indians got what they wanted, a split of the first two games in Baltimore. How did they do it? With 3 1/3 hitless innings from five relievers.

The Orioles had been 83-4 when leading after seven innings, including the postseason. But three pitches after walking pinch hitter Jim Thome on a disputed checked swing, Benitez allowed Grissom's two-out homer.

His lapse of concentration not only helped cost the Orioles a victory, but also renewed questions about whether he can handle the closer's role next season if the Orioles lose Randy Myers to free agency.

Did Benitez get rattled?

"I think everyone did," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said. "But there's no excuse for not making a good pitch to the next guy. The next guy was the one that can beat you."

The next guy was Grissom, who already was 2-for-3 for the night.

Benitez fed him a hanging slider.

Opponents batted a league-low .125 with runners on base against Benitez this season. But for all his gaudy stats, he's still prone to losing his composure.

Did Johnson think Thome swung?

"I did," Johnson said. "I'm sure the Indians didn't. The umpire agreed with the Indians."

Jim Joyce was the plate umpire.

Larry McCoy ruled no swing at third.

"I thought it was a great call," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said, smiling.

Benitez was unavailable for comment.

No reliever is perfect. No bullpen is perfect. Indeed, last night's stunning turnaround made the Orioles' season-long excellence seem all the more impressive.

Benitez has held leads in 46 of 48 games, including the playoffs.

"I can't think of any time this year that Armando didn't hold the lead," Johnson said, shaking his head. "Basically, he's gone through the tough part of the opposing lineups."

Last night, though, it was the Indians' relievers who dominated the late innings, buying time for their hitters, setting the stage for their dramatic comeback.

The Orioles broke the 2-2 tie in the sixth with a two-out, two-strike opposite-field single by the indefatigable Mike Bordick. Through the seventh, they appeared firmly in command.

Scott Kamieniecki pitched three hitless innings in relief of the pitcher formerly known as Jimmy Key, but Johnson couldn't stay with him longer, knowing he needs Kamieniecki to start Game 5.

It was the eighth inning.

Benitez's inning.

The inning the Orioles always control.

"The guy has been tough all year, especially with the pitches he has -- the 100-mph fastball, a pretty good breaking ball," Indians reliever Mike Jackson said. "But anything can happen in baseball."

And last night, anything did.

Benitez got off to a good start, striking out pinch-hitter Jeff Branson. He walked Sandy Alomar, struck out Tony Fernandez and then had to face Thome, who is hitless in 19 at-bats at Camden Yards this season.

Thome finished the regular season with 40 homers, but manager Mike Hargrove benched him last night in favor of the right-handed hitting Kevin Seitzer. In the eighth inning, with Benitez throwing his usual heat, Hargrove picked his spot.

At that point, Johnson had a choice -- left-hander Jesse Orosco was warming in the bullpen, and Thome is 0-for-12 against him with six strikeouts lifetime.

Did Hargrove expect Johnson to go to Orosco?

"You've got to anticipate that. We were ready for that. But it didn't surprise me when he didn't," Hargrove said. "Here's a guy on the mound who throws 99 mph. He's got a nasty little breaking ball. He's had a lot of success against us."

Benitez had allowed only three hits in 6 1/3 scoreless innings against the Indians this season. Johnson stuck with the plan that has worked for him all year. It wasn't like Benitez hadn't been successful against left-handed hitters -- he held them to a .198 batting average this season.

He should have been able to handle the struggling Thome.

"If I didn't think Armando was throwing good, I would have gone to Jesse," Johnson said. "But I thought Armando was throwing the ball exceptionally well and Thome is not the guy who is going to beat me.

"It was the guy behind him who was going to beat me. Armando has been the guy all year. I didn't have any qualms about leaving him in."

But then Benitez walked Thome.

Sure, it looked like Thome swung on 3-2. But the Orioles caught a similar break in the sixth on a 2-2 pitch to Chris Hoiles, and Hoiles walked to set up Bordick's go-ahead single.

The umpires didn't lose the game. The Orioles did.

"We put Armando in that spot all year," pitching coach Ray Miller said. "He's such a great talent. With everything focused in the playoffs the way it is, you know if you make a mistake, you'll pay for it."

Benitez paid.

Grissom delivered.

Suddenly, we've got a series.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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