SEATTLE -- At this point in his career, and in his life, being involved in a pennant race is the best possible tonic for Rick Sutcliffe.
If he didn't pitch another inning, the Orioles still would havreceived full value for every penny of the $1.2 million they guaranteed him at the start of the season. But they probably wouldn't be able to remain in the American League East race.
"Being in a pennant race is the most exciting thing baseball hato offer," said Sutcliffe. "This is what you play for -- there's nothing else like it."
And if the Orioles weren't involved, Sutcliffe admitted that hioutlook this past week might have been different. "If we were 10 games out, I might still be home," he said.
Instead, one week after the death of his mother, Sutcliffe madhis major-league-leading 30th start yesterday. Like his two previous ones, and the one that christened Oriole Park at Camden Yards in the season opener, it was memorable.
Sutcliffe used, and needed, every trick in his vast arsenal -- 14pitches worth -- to shut out the Seattle Mariners for 8 2/3 innings. He didn't get to complete the shutout because he walked Lance Parrish, and Gregg Olson came on to retire Pete O'Brien to conclude the 2-0 victory and claim his 31st save.
It was the second straight shutout for the Orioles, over one of thhottest hitting teams in the major leagues and one that has worn them out for the past three years.
"I'm glad we're finished with them," said Sutcliffe (14-11). "ThedTC have a tough lineup. I'm ready to go try somebody else now."
Last Tuesday night, Sutcliffe flew back from Kansas City, Mo., where he went to help with funeral arrangements for his mother, Louise Bloss, who had died of cancer, and pitched eight strong )) innings in a 9-1 win over the California Angels. He left that game, he said, only because he misunderstood a question from manager John Oates.
"I swear on my life he asked, 'Are you OK?' and I said yes anput on my jacket," recalled Sutcliffe.
The only problem was that Oates had asked him "Have you haenough?"
Sutcliffe may not always understand Oates, but the managedoesn't care as long as he continues to produce. After losing all six of his starts in July, when he was 0-5, the Orioles won all six that he started this month, with Sutcliffe getting credit for four of them.
"I just wasn't making good pitches with men on base [lasmonth]," said Sutcliffe. "There wasn't anything wrong with my velocity, or anything like that -- I was just pressing."
Just when Sutcliffe had his act back together, his mother passeaway. "She loved watching me play," he said yesterday. "As sick as she was, she made a trip to Baltimore earlier in the year, and she also went to Texas once.
"I came back [to pitch last Tuesday] because I knew shwould've wanted me to --and because I needed it."
Oates is happy to have him. "He's really charged up [about thrace]," said Oates. "You can see it in his body. And body language says a lot."
So do 141 pitches without any runs being scored.
"I knew coming in it was going to be tough against that gu[Seattle starter David Fleming]," said Sutcliffe. "I didn't expect many runs off him."
He was right, but nobody could have predicted the turns thigame took. The first five Orioles reached base, four of them on base hits. But only two runs materialized and Fleming (15-6) allowed only three more hits the rest of the way.
"It was a weird game," said Oates. "You have to give hi[Fleming] credit. The first five guys got on and then he shut us down."
When the first two batters connected safely against Sutcliffe ilooked like the Orioles might not get out of the first inning with the lead. But Ken Griffey, Kevin Mitchell (who swung at a bad 3-and-0 pitch) and Tino Martinez all went out rather routinely.
The Orioles had one chance to break the game open, but a londrive to right field by Mike Devereaux turned into a triple play when Randy Milligan, from first base, and Brady Anderson, from second base, unveiled some innovative base-running techniques that didn't confuse the Mariners.
Fortunately, the foul-up didn't jeopardize the Orioles' fourth wiin their last five games and they remained 1 1/2 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. The net gain for the weekend was a half-game on both the Blue Jays and the third-place Milwaukee Brewers, who split a four-game series.
"We didn't overwhelm anybody," said Sutcliffe, "but we've wotwo straight series -- and that's something we haven't done for a while.
"But we still have to get a little better -- we're still 1 1/2 gameback."
It isn't hard to get the impression that Sutcliffe, who should be lock for Comeback Player of the Year, has his sights set on loftier goals. September is 24 hours away and he's just where he wants to be -- in a pennant race.
"I won't say this is what I expected from him," said Oates. "Buit's what I hoped he could do for us."
After 30 starts and 207 innings (fifth most in the AmericaLeague), Sutcliffe has more than justified the faith Oates showed in him from the first day of spring training. If he hasn't been a marvel, he's certainly been a revelation.