Fernando's back so is O's mania


Just when all seemed lost, when all hope from this bizarre season seemed gone, along came Fernando Valenzuela, pushing rewind on his career, and fast forward into the Orioles' hearts.

The Toronto Blue Jays hadn't been shut out this season, but along came Roland Hemond's favorite relic last night, escaping a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the second, then bringing the crowd back to its feet in the ninth.

Fernando shuts out Toronto.

Maybe the dinosaurs really are coming back.

Oh, how everything looks different now. That ninth-inning collapse Tuesday night, the one that left manager Johnny Oates sitting for hours in his kitchen in the dark? Just a blip on a glorious 6-3 homestand, nothing more.

"I'm OK now," Oates said after last night's 6-0 victory, bleary-eyed but smiling. "I'm OK."

Of course, he is. Valenzuela looked ready for retirement after lasting only 3 1/3 innings against the New York Yankees last Friday night. The fans showered him with boos, but suddenly all is forgiven. For Valenzuela. For Oates. For everyone.

For heaven's sake: Valenzuela is now tied with 12 others for the major-league lead in shutouts. His previous one was a rain-shortened, eight-inning effort against Cleveland on May 18. Last night's was the 31st of his career.

Tuesday night?

What happened Tuesday night?

Just ask Oates, who freely admitted yesterday that he blundered trying to protect a 1-0 lead, waiting too long to use Gregg Olson, the best reliever in club history, enjoying the best month of his career.

Indeed, Oates conceded the ninth inning of the 2-1 loss was so full of questionable strategy, "it should give the talk shows something to go on for a week" -- not that they need any additional fodder.

After such a crushing defeat, it seemed highly unlikely the Orioles would rally behind a pitcher who hadn't won since June 2, a pitcher with a 4.79 ERA, a pitcher who seemed on the verge of getting released.

Yet, that's exactly what happened, with Valenzuela allowing only six hits and walking none. It was his first nine-inning shutout since his no-hitter against St. Louis on June 29, 1990, almost three years ago to the day.

Dave Stewart, Valenzuela's opponent last night, pitched a no-hitter that same day. The two were Los Angeles Dodgers teammates in the early 1980s. What else could Stewart do last night but stand back and admire?

"He was out of the game for a little while and tried to show people he was still capable of pitching, which I could relate to," Stewart said. "I wished he could have done this against someone else. But it was just outstanding to see him throw the ball that well."

Actually, Valenzuela has been throwing the ball well for most of the season, but the Orioles were averaging only 2.81 runs per nine innings behind him, the second worst run support in the American League after David Cone (2.60).

The difference this time? Six runs obviously, but also a suggestion from pitching coach Dick Bosman, who advised Valenzuela to change his arm angle. Valenzuela came from over the top instead of the side, and the adjustment worked wonders.

"This is the best he's been," catcher Chris Hoiles said. "He did a great job mixing his pitches up, keeping the ball down. Everything was working -- the sinker was sinking, the cutter (cut fastball) was cutting, and the screwball was down."

Of course, you never would have guessed that when John Olerud, Tony Fernandez and Ed Sprague hit consecutive singles to start the second inning. But Valenzuela popped up Darnell Coles, then got Pat Borders to hit into a 5-3 double play.

It doesn't always look pretty, but after 347 major-league games, Valenzuela knows what he's doing. The Blue Jays managed only two hits after Olerud led off the fourth with a single. One hundred and fourteen pitches, that's all it took.

How did Valenzuela do it?

"Mirrors," Toronto's Paul Molitor said.

Come again?

"He pitched well," Molitor said. "He used his cutter to keep us honest and keep us from diving into the plate. He mixed up his pitches, and it was tough to get a good swing against him."

Tough to get a swing. Off chubby Fernando. In a game that meant the difference between six out and eight. Heck, if there's life left in the 32-year-old Valenzuela, there's life left in this season. Remember, Mike Mussina returns tomorrow night.

Fernando shuts out Toronto.

Anything is possible now.

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