O's paint reality in magic hue

August 17, 1998|By John Eisenberg

CLEVELAND -- They're not just winning most of the time, not just playing well.

The Orioles have lately exhibited almost a magical quality as they make a late bid for a wild-card berth.

True, last night's 5-3 loss to the Indians was anything but; manager Ray Miller stuck with starter Scott Kamieniecki for too long and a 3-1 lead disappeared along with a chance for a four-game sweep at Jacobs Field.

Who knows what would have happened if Miller had pulled Kamieniecki after six strong innings instead of leaving him in to walk the first two batters in the seventh?

Still, it's hard to complain after a road trip that included seven wins in 10 games. Some remarkable things happened. Eric Davis' hitting streak reached 30 games before ending last night. Chris Hoiles became the first catcher in major- league history to hit two grand slams in a game. The Orioles won two extra-inning games in three days against the Indians.

And even with last night's loss, their deficit in the wild- card race shrunk by a game on a weekend when it was supposed to grow.

It's almost enough to make you wonder if something extraordinary really is starting to stir.

Their season was over, dead, even they all but admitted it at midseason. Scott Erickson virtually dismissed the chances of anything happening. B.J. Surhoff agreed that professionalism was the requisite motivation for the rest of the season.

They'd played well ever since, better than anyone thought possible, better than anyone else in the majors, but they still were just an interloper at the playoff party, an outsider without a realistic chance -- until the past few days.

At some point during their weekend here, they turned from a pretender back into a contender again.

You could feel the change. Heck, you could even see it. All eyes in the clubhouse turned to the television when news of the Red Sox game came on. The room grew silent.

"What do you know?" Rafael Palmeiro said to a reporter before last night's game, making idle conversation.

"The Red Sox lost again," he was told.

"Shoot," Palmeiro said, "I already knew that."

All the Orioles knew before they took the field last night. Suddenly, they had a piece of serious short-term motivation on their plates: the chance to draw within six games of the Sox.

Six games. A realistic number in mid-August, not a fantasy.

It didn't happen, but the Orioles are still close enough to think big.

"Five is the number I want to hit as soon as possible," Miller said. "That's when you start smelling [the leaders]."

The Orioles are almost there. The Sox finally blinked over the weekend, losing twice to the Twins at Fenway Park. An unexpected boost.

"It's nice when they lose," Miller said. "There's not much you can do. You just watch 'em. It's good when they lose. But you still have to win your own ballgames. That's why you can't get too excited."

But let's not kid here. These are the Red Sox, baseball's most infamous floppers. The next six weeks will go anything but smoothly in Boston, where Calvinist fatalism reigns, if the Orioles make a run.

"[Boston] is a tough place," Miller said. "I remember when they had a five-game lead at the end of June in '78 or '79, and we came in and all the talk in the papers and on the radio was 'They're going to blow it.' Shoot, it was only June. But that's a tough place. It ain't fun getting booed. They're booing the crap out of [Pedro] Martinez now."

The Orioles were getting booed just six weeks ago, and deservedly so. As baseball's best-paid team, they were running neck-and-neck with the expansion Devil Rays.

And now this. A 27-8 record since the All-Star break. The Red Sox in sight, however distantly still. And not just a long run of wins, but feats of wizardry.

Who can explain it? The roster is healthier than before, but that's not all of it, not nearly. The collective batting average is 37 points higher since the break. The bullpen's ERA since the break is almost two points lower. Go figure.

Somewhere along the way, a sense of momentum took hold. A sense that something right was always going to happen, as opposed to something wrong.

Even in losing last night, they loaded the bases in the top of the ninth, fighting all the way.

After they came from four runs down to beat the Indians Thursday night, pitcher Mike Mussina said, "We would have lost that game before the break."

Brady Anderson said the same after hitting a game-winning home run in Saturday's 9-8 victory, which closer Armando Benitez almost gave away.

There's really no explaining a swing in fortune that dramatic, a change in luck that profound, a tide of momentum gathered out of nowhere in six weeks.

But it's a reality now.

Whether the Orioles can keep it up, who knows? Last night's loss didn't help. But they have given themselves a chance. That much they can say. They have turned a fantasy into reality.

It's possible.

After a 7-3 road trip finishing with three wins in four games at Jacobs Field, it seems very possible.

"How long ago does the first half [of the season] seem?" someone asked Miller.

"Three years," he said.

Sounds about right.

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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