Their manager referred to it as simply good, ol' Oriole Magic. The clubhouse looked at last night's unlikely 4-3 win over the Kansas City Royals as nothing less than preordained.
Jeffrey Hammonds topped a four-run uprising against Royals closer Jeff Montgomery with a two-out, two-strike, two-run single that lifted the Orioles to a 4-3 win before the remnants of 39,435 at Camden Yards. Within a span of eight hitters and 31 pitches, the Orioles reminded anyone still watching that good teams can discover ways to win in odd places.
The reversal spared Orioles starting pitcher Jimmy Key an unjust loss after he allowed the Royals only one run in five innings. Armando Benitez gained the win in return for getting one out. The loss seared Montgomery, the Royals' all-time save leader.
"It hurts. It hurts a lot. You want to search for answers, but you're not able to come up with good ones," Montgomery said.
The pleasure was all the Orioles'. Last season, they won three times when trailing after eight innings. Last night, they turned an entire series.
The Orioles managed only two hits through eight innings against Royals starter Pat Rapp and reliever Matt Whisenant. They were victimized by two double plays, failed in an attempt to steal third base and started the ninth inning 0-for-10 with runners on base.
Then designated hitter Harold Baines changed the momentum by greeting Montgomery with a home run to right field. Suddenly, it became easy to believe.
"You go so long without doing anything, a home run kind of gets you going," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "It seems like that's what it takes with this team. For a long time, it didn't look like we were going to do anything. But then you see something like Harold's home run, and it kind of changes your thinking."
Baines' home run gave him all three of the Orioles' hits because he also singled twice against Rapp. It also changed the thinking in the home dugout. With the Orioles still trailing 3-1, Eric Davis exchanged a knowing glance and laughter with Cal Ripken.
"When Baines hit that home run, we just knew," said Davis, who was given the night off. "It wasn't like somebody went running up and down the dugout saying we were going to win. It was just a feeling. Everybody knew we were going to win that game. You don't explain it. You just roll with it."
Ripken walked with one out and was replaced by pinch runner Jeff Reboulet. B. J. Surhoff then flied out to left field for the second out. Hoiles singled and yielded to pinch runner Mike Bordick. Montgomery, struggling for his command, then hit Joe Carter on the left elbow with a pitch two feet inside, loading the bases.
Montgomery walked Brady Anderson to force home Reboulet, making the score 3-2.
"This is the first time in my professional career I can remember walking a batter with the bases loaded," Montgomery said.
Turning to hitting coach Rick Down, Miller asked whether he should let Hammonds hit if the count reached 2-0. Down answered, "Do you want to win or tie?" Miller was thinking win and told himself to let Hammonds swing.
Coming off the breakthrough season of his four-year career, Hammonds is in a position where he must borrow time. Davis is again healthy. Carter is a borderline Hall of Famer. When approached this spring about duplicating last year's 21 home runs, he cracked wise: "I'd just like to get 21 at-bats."
Last night, Miller slotted him in the lineup's No. 2 spot, a place usually occupied by second baseman Roberto Alomar. Naturally, the game-ending situation sought him out.
Hammonds quickly fell behind Montgomery, 1-2. However, Montgomery never could get a feel for his breaking pitches, and when he tried to slip a last one past Hammonds, the right fielder reached down to pull it through the left side.
"Even when I got Hammonds in a position to put him away to end the game, I wasn't able to execute a good breaking ball," Montgomery said.
Bordick and Carter scored, igniting a rush from the first-base dugout. A team that seemed asleep an inning before now couldn't stop celebrating.
"Those are the kind of things you pray for early in the year, because this is a very good ballclub. We didn't do that a whole lot last year. To do it off a top-class closer like Montgomery is good for the ballclub," Miller said.
Of Hammonds, Miller said he has noticed a player more receptive to new things this spring and theorized about the significance of a multi-year contract signed in February. Miller calls it "making a statement."
"He's stealing bases. He's going the other way. He's hitting home runs. He's out there working on his throwing and making good throws to home plate. He's been very impressive," Miller said. "He's been working on those things the last two years, but he's been working on it and not applying it. Now, he's applying it. Now, he's playing baseball."
Hammonds clearly does not enjoy such talk. Remaining as gracious as possible, he said: "I'm glad the skipper notices. Maybe that will help me get some more opportunities."
The Royals had taken a 3-0 lead by manufacturing a two-out run off Key in the third inning, then using Johnny Damon's speed to create two more against Terry Mathews and Arthur Rhodes in the seventh. Damon finished with four hits, a run scored, an RBI and two stolen bases. He had two doubles and two infield hits.
Conversely, the Orioles watched Anderson get thrown out on the front end of a third-inning double steal. Rapp's six walks brought them nothing, as they were unable to attack him with men on base. However, the ninth inning made such reflections incidental.
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Tigers' Scott Sanders (6-14, 5.86 in '97) vs. Orioles' Doug Drabek (12-11, 5.74 in '97)
Tickets: 10,100 remain
Pub Date: 4/03/98