Suddenly, 33rd Street back on map

April 20, 2000|By John Eisenberg

A tough, strong performance from the starting pitcher. An unusual rally in the late innings. A narrow escape in the top of the ninth. And finally, an ending bathed in drama.

Sound familiar? It should to any Orioles fan with a memory.

"That's the way it used to be," bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said after the Orioles' 3-2 win over the Devil Rays last night at Camden Yards. "That was a Memorial Stadium game right there. The only thing missing was Wild Bill Hagy and Section 34 going wild."

You want Weaver-era magic? How about Cal Ripken hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth to win his first game back in Baltimore since collecting his 3,000th career hit last weekend in Minnesota?

"If you were going to write a script on how to celebrate [3,000] all over again, that was the way to do it," Ripken said.

His teammates just shook their heads as music blared in the clubhouse after the Orioles' eighth win in 13 games.

"Only a few guys have been blessed by the baseball gods, and Cal is one of them," first baseman Will Clark said. "For him to rise to the occasion as often as he has in his career, while getting the kind of scrutiny he gets, just shows you what a phenomenal athlete he is.

"That was a great moment, but at this point, no one should be surprised by anything he does."

As dramatic as the ending was, however, it was just the punctuation on a taut, tense night that reeked of 33rd Street.

The Orioles fell behind in the fourth inning when Mike Mussina allowed two runs on bases-empty homers, and they stayed behind and shut out until the bottom of the seventh. Devils Rays starter Steve Trachsel, an 18-game loser last year, was pitching superbly.

"I watched a tape of his last start, and he was much, much better tonight," Clark said. "He was locating his pitches really well."

The Orioles lost a ton of such games to losing and/or unknown pitchers in 1998 and 1999, a habit befitting their underachieving ways. Last night, they found a way to win.

Yes, it's still early in the 2000 season, way too early to make any hard assessments. But make no mistake, wins such as this suggest that, if anything, the Orioles might have a little more substance to them this season.

"Teams that struggle don't find a way to win, and we did," Mussina said.

"Earl [Weaver] used to say that there's no such thing as momentum in baseball, but contrary to that, if a team plays some close games and wins some of them, like this, it can develop a certain confidence," Ripken said.

Translated: This was the kind of game a good team wins.

"A good team gives itself a chance to win late in a game, regardless of what happens early," said Mussina, who allowed only the two runs in eight innings and failed again to get the win. "We've done that in almost every game this year. We've almost always at least given ourselves a chance to win.'

Last night, it all started with a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh, with the bottom of the order doing the damage. Clark, batting seventh, walked with one out. Then catcher Charles Johnson slapped a 3-0 pitch down the left-field line for a double. Shortstop Mike Bordick, batting ninth, tripled to right-center, scoring both runners.

That was all for Trachsel, suddenly out of gas.

When B.J. Surhoff walked to lead off the bottom of the eighth, it appeared a game-winning rally was at hand. But Albert Belle hit into a double play, and that was that.

Then the Devils Rays put together what appeared to be a game-winning rally of their own, loading the bases with one out in the top of the ninth against reliever Mike Trombley, who had replaced Mussina. Another bullpen blowup? Not this time. The Devils Rays' Gerald Williams chased three pitches out of the strike zone for the second out, and Miguel Cairo grounded to Bordick to end the threat.

Then Ripken stepped to the plate leading off the bottom of the ninth and hit Jim Mecir's second pitch into the left-field seats.

"We lost three ballgames like that just last week, so it was nice to win one that way," Hargrove said. "There's a positive effect, no question. You leave the park feeling real good."

The fans didn't want to leave the park at all. After the ball landed in the seats, the crowd stood and cheered Ripken for several minutes as he conducted a radio interview on the field.

"A tie ballgame, a sudden-death home run, a celebration at home, your teammates beating you up and all at the plate -- that's one of the best feelings you can have," Ripken said.

A comeback win. A winning record. Fans staying after the game to cheer.

For a night, you could close your eyes and almost smell Memorial Stadium.

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