Persistent Red Sox keep up pressure on dogged Orioles

August 20, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

At the moment Mike Bordick hit his three-run homer off Rolando Arrojo, the out-of-town scoreboard said Boston 1, Kansas City 0. When Bordick reached second, the score was 2-0. By the time, he touched home, it was 4-0.

The Red Sox didn't score that quickly last night, but it sure seemed that way. It seems they always have an answer, no matter what the Orioles do, no matter how tantalizingly close the wild-card standings appear.

The Orioles got seven strong innings from Mike Mussina, a huge outfield assist from Willie Greene, a third straight multi-hit game by Cal Ripken, a pinch-hit RBI double by Eric Davis.

But was it enough?

Once again, the Red Sox refused to blink.

It's Aug. 20, folks. The Seattle Mariners rallied from a 12 1/2 -game deficit on this date to win the AL West in 1995, but only after the California Angels collapsed in front of them.

The Red Sox show no signs of doing the same.

They won again last night, defeating Kansas City, 11-1. The Orioles kept pace with a 6-4 victory over Tampa Bay, but they still trail by seven games in the wild-card standings, eight in the loss column.

Each passing day reinforces the difficulty of their quest, the near-impossible task they face in trying to become the first team this century to rally from a 15 1/2 -game deficit for a postseason berth.

Talk about discouraging: The Orioles swept four straight from Boston to open the second half, but they've gained only 4 1/2 games on the wild-card leaders since, going 26-8 to the Red Sox's 22-13.

The Red Sox don't always win when the Orioles win, but they almost always win when the Orioles lose -- seven of eight times since the break, in fact. Babe Ruth's home run record might soon be broken. Is the Curse of the Bambino next?

At this point, the Orioles' only hope is to make like the 1993 Atlanta Braves, and play so well that they overtake a team winning nearly as often, holding its own, refusing to fold.

Those Braves trailed San Francisco by 10 games on July 22. They had no wild-card safety net, no choice but to win the NL West. It was the last season before baseball went to expanded playoffs, the last great pennant race.

The Giants finished 38-27 to win 103 games.

The Braves finished 49-16 to win 104.

Did the Giants collapse? Of course not -- they finished with the most victories ever by a team that failed to reach the postseason.

Can the Orioles make like the Braves? Well, they'll finish 28-8 if they continue playing at their near-.800, post-All-Star break pace, and win 96 games. The Red Sox could reach the same total by going 22-16.

It isn't over, not when the Orioles have six games remaining with the Red Sox, not when Boston has five games left with the New York Yankees, the Orioles only three.

But it still looks awfully tough.

Every game is practically a must-win for the Orioles, and to their credit, they keep responding. But to understand the Sisyphus-like nature of their pursuit, just consider the events of three dog days in August:

Aug. 9. The Orioles start the day 7 1/2 back, and they've got Mussina pitching in Minnesota, with the Red Sox playing in Texas that night.

A day to gain ground? Just the opposite. Mussina loses, 5-4. The Red Sox turn a 12-2 lead into a 12-8 nail-biter by the fifth inning, but prevail, 14-8.

The deficit increases to 8 1/2 games.

Aug. 16. This time it's the Orioles playing Sunday night, knowing the Red Sox had lost. A fourth straight victory over Cleveland, and they'll reduce the Boston lead to six games.

What happens?

Manager Ray Miller stays too long with Scott Kamieniecki. Rafael Palmeiro ends the game by lining out to left with the bases loaded. The Orioles lose, 5-3.

The deficit remains seven games.

Aug. 18. The Red Sox play host to Texas in a doubleheader with the Orioles host to Minnesota. By the end of the day, the gap could grow to eight games, reduce to five or fall somewhere in between.

Boston's Pedro Martinez pitches 8 2/3 innings in Game 1, preserving the Red Sox's bullpen. Bret Saberhagen lasts only five innings in Game 2, but five relievers combine to pitch four shutout innings to secure the sweep.

The Orioles beat Minnesota, 7-1, but lose ground.

The deficit increases to seven games.

Every night is like this, totally tense, totally on the edge. The likely result is that the AL East will produce the league's best three records. Of course, that would be of little consolation to the Orioles if they finished third.

Imagine where they'd be now if they hadn't been swept four straight at home by Tampa Bay in the first half, if they hadn't lost two of three at home to Florida, if they hadn't been swept three straight at Montreal.

It was inexcusable for the Orioles to go 1-9 against those three bottom feeders, especially when a mere 5-5 record would have put them only three games behind the Red Sox today.

It's Aug. 20, folks. There's still enough time to fantasize about what might become of this bizarre season. But how long before the Orioles ask what might have been?

Pub Date: 8/20/98

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