Weekend trip offers a road to recovery

October 10, 1997|By John Eisenberg

They have won on the road all season, more than any other Orioles team in history.

They also have turned on a special brand of magic in games they needed to win, almost without exception.

The Orioles can only hope those characteristics are still functioning after watching their bullpen blow a lead in a 5-4 loss to the Indians in Game 2 of American League Championship Series last night at Camden Yards.

Marquis Grissom's three-run homer off Armando Benitez in the eighth inning silenced a sellout crowd that was beginning to think that the Orioles' road to the World Series was, well, pretty easy.

It won't be now, not with the series tied heading into a three-game weekend at Jacobs Field.

The Orioles are still the team to beat; Mike Mussina hasn't thrown a pitch, Scott Erickson will start Game 4 and there are reasons why the Orioles were 11 1/2 games better than the Indians during the season.

But Grissom's one swing changed the Indians from beaten losers to encouraged winners, breathing life into a series that was beginning to look lopsided.

"I think we have a little momentum now," Indians reliever Mike Jackson said.

Remember, the Indians also seemed beaten in their Division Series against the Yankees, drawing within four outs of elimination before rallying to win.

Grissom's homer saved the Indians on a night when they were on the verge of blowing a game they should have won much more easily.

They stranded eight runners in the first four innings against Orioles starter Jimmy Key, who was fortunate to keep the game close.

Key needed 77 pitches to record 12 outs.

He has faded so badly in the second half of the season that his starts now represent a far poorer chance of a victory than starts by Mussina or Erickson.

Orioles manager Davey Johnson has consistently defended Key during his slump, but last night's shaky outing may have persuaded the manager to use the veteran pitcher more sparingly.

"Is it just that Key is out of gas?" Johnson was asked.

"He might be," the manager said.

To his credit, Key battled hard and kept the Orioles in the game, with help from Cal Ripken's two-run homer that tied the score in the second.

The score remained there until Mike Bordick's two-out, bases-loaded single delivered two runs in the sixth to give the Orioles a 4-2 lead.

As the crowd roared, however, a key moment unfolded.

vTC The Orioles' Chris Hoiles stopped at third base instead of charging for home, held by coach Sam Perlozzo, as Indians right fielder Manny Ramirez threw to second instead of to home.

There's little doubt that Hoiles would have scored easily.

"Probably so," Johnson said. "But no one knew [Ramirez] was going to throw to second."

It didn't seem to matter when Scott Kamieniecki pitched a scoreless seventh and gave way to Benitez to start the eighth.

The Orioles were 83-4 this season, including the playoffs, when they took a lead into the eighth.

Benitez walked two batters and struck out two before Grissom came to the plate, with the last walk to Jim Thome, who came close to swinging on a third strike that was called a checked swing.

What did Johnson think of the call?

"I thought it was a strike, obviously," he said.

And Indians manager Mike Hargrove?

"I thought it was a great call," he said, smiling.

Rattled, Benitez threw a slider that Grissom pounded over the center-field fence.

"I don't want to say we play our best with our backs to the wall, but we don't back down," Hargrove said. "It's been that way in the two [playoff] series, and, really, all of September."

But the thing is, the Orioles have been that way all season.

They have shown no fear away from Camden Yards, winning a club-record 52 games during the season and battering the Mariners in two straight games in Seattle in their Division Series last week.

It's a habit that goes against conventional logic, and there's no explanation for it, but there's no denying that the Orioles have played confidently on the road.

"Sometimes it seems like we're more loose," Johnson said. "It's the mark of a good team."

So is the ability to rise to the occasion, another characteristic that has marked the Orioles. From their four wins against the Yankees early in the season to their sweep of the Braves in June to their defeat of the Mariners last week, they have consistently won games they had to win.

And no, last night's Game 2 wasn't one of them, not with Key starting.

With Mussina scheduled to pitch two of the series' remaining five games, if it lasts that long, the Orioles still have the advantage.

Don't count on the bullpen blowing too many more games.

Last night's stunner left the Orioles in a precarious position, but they have thrived all year in such circumstances, winning on the road and winning in the clutch.

It's time to do it again.

Who said this was going to be easy, anyway?

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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