Someday, the Orioles might look back at the first months in a season of unfulfilled expectations and laugh.
If they're traded to the Yankees, anyway.
New York swept a doubleheader from the Orioles yesterday, 3-2 and 7-5, and there is a Sid Fernandez-sized gap between the first- and second-place teams in the AL East now -- nine games. A Camden Yards crowd of 46,451 watched in disgust or utter joy, the Yankees faithful overpowering in loud celebration.
As recently as Friday, the Orioles talked about adding a player or two for the stretch drive. Now they must consider another option: dealing veterans from a team that is five games under .500 (35-40) since April 17, tearing down this group and rebuilding for the future.
Technically, the Orioles are a wild-card contender. Technically, so are the Detroit Tigers, and neither team has shown any sign of being able to hang with the front-runners. The Yankees are 5-0 against the Orioles at Camden Yards this season, the first time New York has won five straight in Baltimore since 1958.
When it was all over last night, when Yankees closer John Wetteland saved Game 2, as he had saved Game 1, manager Davey Johnson sat in the Orioles dugout and stared on to the field for two or three minutes, probably replaying parts of the doubleheader in his mind.
The Yankees scored two runs in the ninth in Game 1 to negate a brilliant performance by David Wells, after the Orioles repeatedly blew scoring chances in the first eight innings. Darryl Strawberry hit two homers in Game 2, his first multi-homer game since April 17, 1992, erasing an Orioles comeback.
Johnson eventually got up and retreated to the clubhouse, and met with his coaches. He asked them for input, ideas for change, suggestions. Johnson said afterward that he's never been one to ask for help from the front office; it's his job, Johnson said, to get the most out of the players he has.
"I don't know the answers," Johnson said. "We're battling, we're just coming up short. I don't have the answer.
"We all hate to lose. The manager, most of all. . . . We got kicked and we're down and we've got to start battling."
Johnson paused, then added, "A hit with runners in scoring position wouldn't hurt."
The Orioles were hitless in seven tries with runners in scoring position in the first game, and 2-for-11 in the second game, and those failures haunted them all day and night. There were other troubles, too. The Orioles made two errors and each cost them a crucial run.
Rookie Rocky Coppinger lasted only four innings in the second game, giving up five runs. Arthur Rhodes left Game 2 with an apparent shoulder injury shortly after allowing a two-run homer to Strawberry, and he eventually was charged with his first loss of the year, following nine victories.
Johnson said: "I still like the character of this team, but we still have a long ways to go."
Nine games, to be exact.
Brady Anderson, who hit his major-league high 31st homer, was somber. "I was out there [and] I'm telling you, we played well, we played hard. . . . I'm telling you, we played our butts off. They were just a little better than us."
The way each loss played out was like pure torture for a team already down. Wells came out for the ninth inning of Game 1 to appreciative cheers, having allowed three hits, no walks and an unearned run. Orioles closer Randy Myers usually inherits one-run leads in the ninth inning, but this time, there seemed to be no need for him.
Wells had thrown only 108 pitches to that point, and in seven of the first eight innings, he faced the minimum three hitters.
But Yankees right fielder Gerald Williams put the Orioles' slim advantage in immediate peril. He lifted a high fly to right field, where Bobby Bonilla drifted back toward the wall. Bonilla bumped against the scoreboard, in position in case the ball came down at the base.
It didn't. Williams' drive bounced high off the scoreboard and down and away from Bonilla, and Williams ended up at third. Triple.
Joe Girardi pinch hit for rookie Matt Howard and lined a single to left, and in the matter of a few pitches, Wells' chance for a victory was gone. Now he was fighting to avoid the loss.
Girardi on first and nobody out, and the Orioles readied themselves for a bunt that never came. Rookie Derek Jeter fought Wells to a full count, enabling Girardi to break from first with the 3-2 pitch. Jeter grounded to shortstop; with Girardi running, Cal Ripken's only play was to first base.
Girardi advanced to second, and when Mariano Duncan hit a looping liner to Bonilla's left, to the wall, Girardi scored the lead run easily.
Yankees manager Joe Torre said: "You can't fault [Wells]. He kept it away and all of a sudden a guy hits a triple off the wall."
Coppinger ran into problems immediately in Game 2, giving up two runs in the first, on Mike Aldrete's two-run single, and two more in the third, when Strawberry drove one into the front of the right-field stands.
But Yankees starter Dwight Gooden was very erratic -- he threw only 52 strikes among his 111 pitches -- and the Orioles tied the game in the bottom of the third. Ripken's 18th homer drove in the inning's third and fourth runs.
Both teams scored a run in the fourth. However, Rhodes, who had thrown two-thirds of an inning in the first game, took over for Coppinger in the fifth. With one out, Bill Ripken bobbled Tino Martinez's grounder. Rhodes threw a low fastball to Strawberry, and the 34-year-old slugger, scouted by the Orioles before he XTC signed with New York, unloaded a titanic 423-foot homer into the stands in right-center.
That was enough runs for another ex-Met, Gooden, to beat his former Mets manager.
Yankees fans called Strawberry's name, and Orioles fans booed Yankees fans. With the Orioles soundly beaten, that was their only recourse.
Opponent: New York Yankees
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 35 TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Yankees' Andy Pettitte (13-4, 3.81) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (5-6, 4.71)
Tickets: Less than 1,000 remain
Pub Date: 7/14/96