PITTSBURGH -- Lee Smith let it get away.
The American League was within two outs of scoring its seventh straight All-Star victory last night when Atlanta Braves first baseman Fred McGriff launched a two-run home run that sent the 65th All-Star Game into extra innings.
Now for the good news. Smith blew this save for Cito Gaston instead of Johnny Oates. He blew the one game this year that isn't going to matter one bit in the outcome of the American League East race.
It could have been a big night for the guys from Baltimore. Right-hander Mike Mussina pitched a strong fifth inning that helped the American League fight back from an early three-run deficit. Cal Ripken played all 10 innings and delivered a long double in the eighth.
The game was turned over to Smith in the ninth, and why not? He entered the break leading the major leagues with 29 saves. He was making his sixth All-Star appearance and his first as a member of the American League squad. But he walked the leadoff hitter and must have known that good fortune was playing against him when Craig Biggio barely beat out a double-play ball that would have cleared the bases before McGriff got to the plate.
The pitch was down and away. McGriff sent it up, up and away. The rest is All-Star history. Tony Gwynn scored the winning run on a close play at the plate in the 10th inning and Smith was left to explain himself to the horde of reporters that quickly encircled his locker after the game.
"You go out and give it your best," he said. "If Fred had hit that pitch into a double play, he'd just say, 'Smitty got me this time.' I've just got to do the same. I've got to give him some of the credit."
Smith didn't exactly appear heartbroken. That is not his way. His easygoing demeanor gave the distinct impression that he was determined to enjoy his All-Star experience no matter what the outcome, but he refused to concede that he was taking it lighter than he might have if the game had cost the Orioles an important game in the standings.
"I don't like losing," he said. "It doesn't matter if I'm shooting the ball around in the driveway with the kids. I don't want to give up a two-run, game-tying home run to Fred McGriff in the second game of spring training."
He admitted, however, that it might be a little bit easier to swallow "after the fact."
"The greatest thrill was to walk out to that line [during introductions]," he said. "To be the only [AL] reliever in the All-Star Game after all that has happened. . . . I'm not going to let anything that happened tonight spoil that."
There was a point in the evening when it looked like it might be a perfect night for the Baltimore contingent. Mussina gave up a bloop single, but he pitched impressively and was the pitcher of record when the AL staged a three-run comeback in the sixth inning.
Ripken came up in the sixth with a runner on and two out. He could have put the AL into the lead with an extra-base hit, which would have given Mussina a chance to win and likely set up Smith for the save.
Ripken did have an extra-base hit, but it came a couple of innings later.
So it was a night of near-misses for everyone in an Orioles uniform, right up to the final play of the game, when Ripken delivered the relay throw to the plate to try to stop Gwynn from scoring the winning run. It appeared to be in time, but catcher Ivan Rodriguez got the tag down a split-second too late.