Missed chances doom O's, end wire-to-wire ride

WHAT A WASTE

Outhit by 10-3, Indians survive Mussina, clinch on Fernandez's homer 'Cleveland did what it took'

O's 0-for-12 with men in scoring position

Game 6 Indians 1 Orioles 0

October 16, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Burned inside, Roberto Alomar spun away from the sound of strike three, dancing on feet that should have helped take his team further into the postseason.

It ended quickly and quietly. The Cleveland Indians, considered almost illegitimates when the playoffs began, closed out the American League Championship Series yesterday by beating the Orioles, 1-0, in 11 innings in Game 6. The Orioles walked away slowly from a stunned Camden Yards crowd, already showing bruises that will be slow to heal.

Fill-in second baseman Tony Fernandez delivered the game-breaker, a two-out home run off star-crossed reliever Armando Benitez. It represented punishment for the Orioles' 0-for-12 dive with men in scoring position and their continued refusal to support starting pitcher Mike Mussina.

And in exchange for a league-high 98 regular-season wins, a wire-to-wire AL East title and a takedown of the league's most intimidating team in the Division Series, the Orioles were sent away to think about what they had lost.

"It's disappointing when you don't get what you set out to get," said third baseman Cal Ripken, who finished the ALCS with a .348 batting average and was flawless defensively. "We made things happen, but we didn't get the hit to win the ballgame.

"Cleveland did what it took to win. They executed well, they pitched well and the ball bounced their way a few times. I don't really feel bad, but I'm still disappointed. We don't get to move on."

Heading to their second World Series in three years, the Indians made the most of their chances. They hit just .193 but won one game after a blown checked-swing call extended a turnaround inning, another on a botched squeeze play, and yesterday's when held to three hits in 11 innings. Bad luck even became their good luck.

Bip Roberts was supposed to bat leadoff and start at second base yesterday, but Fernandez, of all people, lined a batting-practice pitch off Roberts' thumb less than an hour before first pitch. Forced to rearrange his lineup, Indians manager Mike Hargrove inserted Fernandez as his No. 2 hitter.

"I knew when Bip got hurt there was some reason I was going to be in the game," Fernandez said. "Now I know why."

The Orioles had considered Fernandez as a utility infielder last winter but reconsidered when they couldn't guarantee him the 350 plate appearances he desired.

So Benitez, dominant all season but hittable in the past week, became the series' tragic figure, throwing a decisive home run pitch for the second time in four losses.

The homer, on a poorly placed slider, was the switch-hitting Fernandez's first of his 38-game postseason career.

For the Orioles, it was never meant to be. They needed only four more outs to take a 2-0 series lead but were undone when series MVP Marquis Grissom reached Benitez for a three-run homer in the eighth inning last Thursday.

"That kind of changed the momentum of the series," said general manager Pat Gillick. "It kind of took awhile to get it back."

The Orioles were undone by two season-long strengths: the bullpen and an ability to win late. Three times the Indians scored in their last at-bat.

"I'll think about it for quite a while. This is a tough loss. This whole series I don't think we caught many breaks," said manager Davey Johnson.

Johnson left the clubhouse after meeting with Ripken, Gillick and several other club officials. He offered only, "No comment. No comment," when asked about his status for next season.

Still, Johnson hung around long enough to concede nothing to the Indians, who won all four games by one run after finishing the season with 12 fewer wins than his club, and the fewest of the four AL playoff teams.

"We were the best team in the American League, just like we were the best team in '69 when the Mets beat us," Johnson said. "But they played us tough. It was a real close series, and we wish them the best."

Yesterday, the Orioles began the first four innings by placing their leadoff hitter on base, but they couldn't push a runner to third base with fewer than two outs.

If Mussina was brilliant, Indians starter Charles Nagy was blessed. He opened the game with a 29-pitch first inning that included two walks and a double, but the Orioles got nothing.

He allowed six of the first 11 hitters he faced to reach base.

He threw three balls to four of the Orioles' first seven batters but was helped by six of the next seven hitters swinging at the first pitch.

And three times in the first five innings, he retired first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to end a potential rally.

Palmeiro will be remembered as the Orioles' offensive fail point for the series. After finishing the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners as one of only two position players to play and not gain an RBI, he staggered through the ALCS, demoted to No. 5 in the order against right-handed pitching, and frustrated by pivotal situations. Yesterday's early-inning brownout topped them all.

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