Palmeiro HR lifts O's in 9th, 5-4 3rd winning '98 shot breaks tie to sink A's, get O's within 8 of Sox

.500 is only a win away

Orioles blow 3 leads in first 5 innings

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

In yesterday's sports section, a caption incorrectly identified an Oriole making a play at second base. The player was Jeff Reboulet.

The Sun regrets the error.

The Orioles have found a horse to ride. His name is Rafael Palmeiro.

The pending free agent and current offensive spark for a team now able to create ways to win, Palmeiro crushed a two-out, ninth-inning home run against reliever Mike Fetters to give the Orioles a 5-4 win before 40,840 at Camden Yards.

Not only did the Orioles first baseman push his team to its 12th win in 13 games since the All-Star break, he allowed it to pull within eight games of the wild card-leading Boston Red Sox. It's the closest the Orioles have been to Boston since trailing the Red Sox by 7 1/2 games June 16.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

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

Palmeiro has ended three games with home runs this season. Last night's heroics allowed the Orioles to avoid what would have been a nagging loss including three blown leads and nine stranded runners.

The Orioles, 24-3 when scoring first at home, took three leads in the first five innings. Eric Davis gave them the first three hitters into the game when he doubled home Rich Becker. Davis, now an everyday designated hitter, owns a 10-game hitting streak with nine extra-base hits and 17 RBIs in his last 17 games.

Sidney Ponson made his 10th major-league start and was 2-0 in three starts since June 26. The Orioles offered him chances to improve the mini-streak. This time he declined.

Ponson consistently pitched up in the strike zone. Fortunately for him, the A's just as consistently failed to capitalize.

The rookie right-hander twice overpowered the bottom of the A's lineup, striking out the side in the third inning and holding the A's last four hitters 0-for-7. Ponson managed only three of his 16 outs on ground balls and halted the staff's season-high string of homer-free innings when Matt Stairs crushed his third pitch of the second inning for a tying home run.

The Orioles -- until recently the league's second-most homer-prone staff -- had lasted eight games and 76 innings since allowing a home run to Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn July 12.

The tie lasted only three pitches into the bottom of the inning before Chris Hoiles answered with his sixth homer.

Hoiles had another chance in the third inning. This time he became the final out of a rally that included four base runners but no runs.

A's starter Blake Stein hit Brady Anderson on the right posterior then allowed Davis' second hit that advanced Anderson to second. With 39 RBIs in his last 39 games, Palmeiro then began what started as a difficult night by grounding into a 4-6-3 double play that left Anderson at third base. Walks to B. J. Surhoff and Cal Ripken loaded the bases. After trailing Hoiles, 2-0, Stein got an important out by rallying for a strikeout.

The A's reversed the game in the fourth inning. They may have done far more damage than two runs had Surhoff not make a sliding backhanded catch against Ben Grieve for the first out. As is, Bip Roberts, Stairs and Jason Giambi singled to tie the game and Mike Macfarlane sliced a foul sacrifice fly to score Stairs for a 3-2 lead.

This time Stein could hold a situation only two pitches. Starting his third consecutive game because of Roberto Alomar's injured right pinkie, Jeff Reboulet created a 3-3 game when he wheeled for his first homer since Game 4 of last October's Division Series against the Seattle Mariners' Randy Johnson. Ripken pushed the Orioles to their third lead in the fifth inning.

Battling a 15-for-76 slide in 21 games before last night, Ripken has contended with a severe head cold ever since the Orioles left on their last road trip. He twice missed batting practice in Anaheim and abbreviated his demanding daily routine. But the last two nights against the A's suggest he's getting better.

Tuesday night Ripken capped a decisive 7-1 win with his eighth home run, a wall-scraper hugging the left-field line for his first homer since June 22. Last night he drove Stein from the game with the fifth-inning double that split the left-center-field gap. Ripken's last three doubles have chased the guilty pitcher.

The hit also carried historical value. Playing consecutive Game No. 2,579, Ripken's 534th career double tied him for 21st all-time with Lou Gehrig. It also was Ripken's hit No. 2,812, tying him with George Sisler for 38th all-time.

Walking no one, Ponson lasted 5 1/3 innings and 72 pitches. Instead of being chased by somebody's double, he was removed after Palmeiro botched Stairs' harmless-looking grounder for his first error since May 16.

A complete game by Scott Erickson the night before allowed manager Ray Miller to play fast and loose with his bullpen last night. With Stairs at first base, he used Doug Johns for only one hitter before calling upon Alan Mills to complete a four-batter inning.

Mills has been almost unbeatable coming into situations with men on base. When he returned to begin the seventh, he inherited nothing except Ponson's lead. The combination of 95-degree heat, oppressive humidity, a close right-field power alley and a pitch without bite allowed A's center fielder Ryan Christenson to push a line drive just to the right of the scoreboard for a game-tying home run.

Mills made his last pitch when he hit the dugout's top step following the third out. He buried his glove against the back wall after blowing his second save.

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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