It didn't matter.
The Orioles, who've shown no inclination toward winning the division for three months now, lost, 4-2, to the Yankees last night before 46,760 at Camden Yards, and dropped seven games out of first place. Rookie shortstop Derek Jeter's two-run homer off Orioles ace Mike Mussina in the eighth inning broke a 2-2 tie.
To put everything in proper perspective: The gap between the Orioles and Yankees is the largest among any first- and second-place teams in baseball, and the Orioles are almost as close to the third-place Blue Jays, who are 15 games out of first, as they are to New York. Time to check those wild-card standings.
Still, Orioles manager Davey Johnson chose to remain upbeat. "We got our opportunities, we just didn't capitalize," he said. "We'll get them tomorrow. It's not the end of the world."
With the score tied 2-2, Mariano Duncan led off the eighth with a ground single through the left side, and advanced on Joe Girardi's sacrifice bunt. Jeter was next, and Mussina zipped two quick strikes by the rookie. Mussina (11-6) then tried to finish off Jeter with a fastball, a high fastball.
Mistake. Jeter whacked it over the wall in left-center field, his fifth homer of the year.
"Mike pitched a good game. He just made one bad pitch," Johnson said. "He left a pitch up and in the strike zone to Derek."
Jimmy Key (6-6) got the victory; the Orioles are 11-15 against lefty starters this year.
Key allowed two runs and six hits in seven innings. He struck out two and walked three to remain unbeaten in five starts since June 5.
Mariano Rivera worked the eighth and John Wetteland struck out the side in the ninth for his 30th save, tops in the majors. The right-hander has saves in each of his last 21 appearances, a major-league record, and has converted his last 24 save opportunities.
Since mid-May, the Orioles' offense has become less than record-setting. It's been as predictable as the old Green Bay Packers sweep, just as boring -- and not nearly as effective. A walk or a hit and then maybe Brady Anderson or Rafael Palmeiro or Cal Ripken will hit a homer. When they haven't hit homers, they usually haven't scored. Including last night, the Orioles have lost the last nine games in which they didn't hit a homer, a streak dating back to May 26.
So when the Orioles aggressively ran the bases and tried new methods of attack last night, after falling behind 2-0, it seemed out of place. Palmeiro trying to steal third? Ripken bunting? Somewhere, Earl Weaver was kicking dirt on his television.
The Yankees scored twice in the second, on a bases-empty homer by Tino Martinez (Martinez homered in his previous at-bat at Camden Yards, too, a 15th-inning grand slam in the wee hours of May 1) and a Girardi RBI single.
Given a two-run lead, Key proceeded to walk the first two hitters in the bottom of the second, Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla, only the second time this year Key has issued back-to-back walks. As Key came to a set position and prepared to pitch to B. J. Surhoff, Palmeiro -- with all of four steals to his credit -- broke from second. Surhoff swung and, breaking his bat, fisted a looper over second base. Palmeiro scored and Bonilla hustled into third. The Go-Go Orioles.
"We don't have a lot of guys who like to hit and run," Johnson said. "B. J.'s one guy who doesn't mind."
Mike Devereaux lifted a fly ball to short center field, and Bernie Williams prepared to catch and throw home. Down a run, nobody out, surely Bonilla would not tag up and try to score.
Surely he did. Williams' strong throw reached Girardi on a bounce, an instant before Bonilla. But Bonilla slid in with his left elbow high, hitting Girardi in the chest, and the ball came loose. Bonilla came up pointing at the ball on the ground -- He dropped it, he dropped it! -- and umpire Greg Kosc called him safe. The Orioles had tied the score.
Key and Mussina settled into a standoff, both requiring a little defensive aid. Mussina retired the Yankees in order in the third, fourth and fifth innings -- "he really cruised after the third inning," Johnson said -- and got the first two outs in the sixth.
But Mussina walked Williams, and Paul O'Neill laced a line drive to right, just inside the line. With two outs, Williams flew around second intent on scoring.
Right fielder Bonilla rushed over to the corner, and when the ball bounced cleanly off the right-field wall, he was in position to catch the carom, turn and fire.
When the ball went off O'Neill's bat, Alomar drifted toward the right-field line, about 40 or 50 feet beyond first base, in position to cut off Bonilla's throw. Williams was tearing around third, but when third base coach Willie Randolph saw Bonilla's quick recovery and throw, he threw up his hands, signaling Williams to stop. Williams, four or five steps past third, tried to plant his feet -- but slipped and fell.
Nobody told this to Alomar; nobody had time to tell him. As he caught the throw from Bonilla, turned homeward and cocked his arm to relay home, Alomar diagnosed immediately that Williams was in trouble, Williams was down on the ground. Alomar, in mid-throw, changed the direction of his fire and whizzed the ball across the infield to Surhoff. Williams tried scrambling back to the base, but Surhoff jabbed hard at Williams' back with his glove for the third out. The fans in and behind the Orioles dugout stood and clapped in appreciation as Alomar trotted off the field.
Anderson walked leading off the bottom of the sixth, and on Key's next pitch, Ripken tried bunting down the third base line, the ball twisting foul. Ripken hit a hard smash up the middle, but second baseman Duncan dove to his right and gloved the ball and flipped to Jeter for the forceout on Anderson.
Bonilla's two-out single and Williams' bobble gave the Orioles runners at second and third, but Jeter fielded Surhoff's curling liner up the middle on one hop and threw to first for the final out, and the score remained 2-2.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Oriole Park
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' Dwight Gooden (8-4, 4.20) vs. Orioles' David Wells (5-8, 5.28)
1% Tickets: Fewer than 1,000 remain.
Pub Date: 7/12/96