The first Cleveland batter to face Jimmy Key last night struck out looking. After that, the rest of the Indians probably couldn't believe what they were seeing from the veteran left-hander. And through tired eyes, no less.
Raising more questions about his command and his health, Key played out an inning that seemed to take longer to complete than Wednesday's game. He continually fell behind in the count, then took aim as if he was trying to win a Cupie doll at a carnival, setting a postseason record by hitting three batters in an inning.
And that wasn't even the worst of it.
After the strikeout of Bip Roberts, Key nailed Omar Vizquel and gave up a home run to Manny Ramirez, the ball clearing the fence in center and the futile leap of Brady Anderson, who had robbed him the previous night. The Indians loaded the bases on a single and two more hit batters before Kevin Seitzer swung through a changeup to end the drudgery.
"They didn't do a lot to try to get out of the way that much," Key said. "The balls were borderline on a couple pitches and they hit them."
Key already had logged 33 pitches by the time he came out for the second inning, and he was gone after the fourth, getting no decision in the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the Indians in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Camden Yards.
Being spared a defeat was the best thing to happen to Key, who has one victory at home since May 7.
He allowed a leadoff single to Marquis Grissom in the second, then needed a diving catch from left fielder B.J. Surhoff to stem a rally. Two more Indians reached in the third, on an infield hit and a walk. Grissom opened the fourth with a single and was joined on the bases by Vizquel, who walked with one out. This time, Key was bailed out by a double play started by third baseman Cal Ripken.
Four innings, five hits, two runs, two walks, four strikeouts, 77 pitches, more concerns.
"How would I assess it,?" he asked, repeating a question. "Shaky. I kept the team in the game. My control wasn't there consistently. I made some good pitches, and some pitches that weren't so good. But when I had to make pitches to get out of a couple jams, I made them. By the time I was out of there, the game was 2-2."
Among the qualities that made Key so appealing to the Orioles over the winter was his ability to win in the postseason. They had learned that lesson the hard way, when Key tied them in knots here in Game 3 of last year's ALCS while pitching for New York. He's also won the deciding game in two World Series.
They're still waiting for him to deliver. In two playoff starts, including Game 3 of the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, he's totaled just 8 2/3 innings and allowed 13 hits and four runs. His knack for slipping out of jams has been his best feature.
"Jimmy settled in and got us out of a couple situations," Miller said. "That's why you let a veteran guy pitch in those games for you. He did dodge a bullet."
Key admitted to feeling tired this week, but no more so than anybody else who's been "putting out for six to eight months."
Manager Davey Johnson conceded on Wednesday that Key probably needs a break, but quickly added that he's had "a phenomenal year." And the way the rotation was being set up before last night, a more rested Key could make two starts in the World Series, if the Orioles get that far.
As for his health, which remains an issue for a pitcher who went over 200 innings for the first time since 1993 and is two years removed from rotator cuff surgery, Key keeps insisting that he's OK.
"I tell everybody, and it's brought up all the time, that physically, I'm fine," he said. "I'm struggling control-wise. I'm not getting mileage out of my number of pitches."
Said Miller: "I know Jimmy's got a lot of innings and we've tried to freshen him up and that's probably cost him a little bit of location. But he settled down and had some good innings. I think he'll come back somewhere along the way and help us."
Off on wrong foot
Jimmy Key's two-run first inning last night, which included a home run and a postseason- record three men hit by pitches, was reminiscent of an earlier streak in which he yielded %o first-inning runs in four of five starts (yielding a second-inning run in the other one).
Key's first-inning woes
Day, .Opp., Dec, .. .H, .. R, .. HR, .. BB
8/15, Sea., L 8-3, . 3, ...2, ...1, .....0
8/26, KC, ..ND, .... 3, ...3, ...2, .....0
NYM, .L 4-1, . 2, ...1, ...1, .....1
9/5, .NYY, .W, 13-9, 3, ...2, ...0, .....2
Key's loss of control
Time span .. ..... ..Inn. .. No. hit
seasons, ..... ...2,890 1/3 , .... 35
'97 regular season, .212 1/3 , ...... .5
'85-'96 postseason, .61 2/3 , ..... ...1
10/9 first inning, ..1, ...... ....3
Pub Date: 10/10/97