Palmeiro finishes off another win 2-out homer in ninth breaks tie, A's, 5-4, for O's 12th win in 13

Red Sox's cushion cut to 8

Despite 3 blown leads, .500 is just win away

July 23, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Rafael Palmeiro is this hot.

On a night where he carried more errors than hits into a tied ninth inning, the first baseman thought home run, looked home run and hit home run to lift the Orioles to a sudden 5-4 victory over the Oakland Athletics last night before 40,840 at Camden Yards.

"I don't do it often. But tonight was one of those times," he said. "It was a tie game and two outs. That's what the situation asks for."

His home run made a winner of fourth reliever Armando Benitez (( (3-2), a loser of A's reliever Mike Fetters (1-4) and more believers among a grouchy constituency hard-boiled by a bummer first half.

Not only did Palmeiro push the Orioles to 12-1 since the All-Star break, he pulled them within eight games of the wild card-leading Boston Red Sox, who lost to Cleveland.

For those seeking a positive sign beyond the last two weeks, the Orioles now stand 50-51, their same record after 101 games in 1996, their other wild-card season.

"I have a good feeling about this. I've always felt that way," said Palmeiro, adding, "before we were out of games early. Now we're playing ahead. We're staying in every game with a chance to break things late."

Of Palmeiro's 31 home runs, three have ended games. More importantly, last night's heroics allowed the Orioles to avoid what otherwise might have been a nagging loss including three blown leads and nine stranded runners.

It also capped a game in which seldom-seen second baseman Jeff Reboulet and Chris Hoiles contributed bases-empty home runs and Eric Davis and Cal Ripken added run-scoring doubles. Rookie Sidney Ponson handed off after 16 outs and the bullpen controlled the last four innings. Palmeiro entered the ninth with an error and an 0-for-3 that included a rally-killing third-inning double play and a strikeout. He emerged as hero.

"Hey, man, what are we waiting for? Let's sign the guy. What more does he have to show? Is it about money? The guys making $9 million-plus aren't more productive than he is. So what is it? This guy has carried us," said one teammate who had trouble envisioning a replacement for Palmeiro's offensive presence.

Since the pending free agent vowed last January that he "won't do a Brady" Anderson and return to Baltimore for below-market value, the Orioles have frosted him. Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos is said to be close to initiating talks, but team policy insists no player be paid in the $10 million neighborhood. However, Palmeiro insisted he wanted five years at Mo Vaughn money. Vaughn earlier this month rejected the Red Sox's four-year, $38 million proposal.

Moments after his game-winning blast, Palmeiro watched a clubhouse TV as Vaughn ended the Red Sox's one-run loss with a strikeout.

"He's a great player and a great guy," Palmeiro said of Vaughn. "I want him to do well."

But right now Palmeiro revels in doing better.

"The pitch he threw to Palmeiro you couldn't even call a mistake," said A's manager Art Howe. "He's just a quality hitter. You have to tip your hat."

Fetters saw things differently.

"I had two strikes on him and I wanted to throw something off the plate and get him to fish at it outside. It stayed over the middle of the plate. He just put the bat on the ball and it went out of the park," described Fetters.

The Orioles improved to 24-3 when scoring first at Camden Yards. They can thank Palmeiro and a much-improved bullpen for improving the stat.

"Raffy's amazing," gushed manager Ray Miller. "He has such a beautiful, compact swing, and when you're sitting there in live action with no replay it looks like the ball just stops at home plate and he hits and it goes out."

Some within his own clubhouse perceive Palmeiro as a Negative Man, a gifted hitter with sometimes delicate confidence. Last season he was prone to sulking and often had to be pulled along during a 98-win season. This year he has stepped out front, driving in 39 runs in the last 38 games.

"Last year things didn't go the way I wanted them all the time," he said. "But I think if I'd had the same situation last year I would've had the same approach."

When hot, Palmeiro plays the game with a noticeable swagger. Now that the Orioles have erased 7 1/2 games from their first-half wild-card deficit, the first baseman can talk the game the same way.

"We smelled it when [the Red Sox] were 16 games ahead of us," he said. "You [media] guys didn't. But we did."

And all that time everyone thought it was the Orioles who smelled. Now they receive competent starting pitching and as a result enjoy a deepening bullpen. Miller wasted no time hooking Ponson after 5 1/3 laudable innings.

A month ago, Miller lived in terror of an invisible bullpen. Last night, while working with six relievers for only the third game this season, he went to the mound often and without looking back.

Asked if he considered such free-wheeling a risk with struggling Doug Drabek starting tonight, Miller insisted, "I never thought about it."

Now, each game carries its own urgency.

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