It started back in May when Orioles manager Davey Johnson first openly considered moving Cal Ripken to third base. Ripken responded on May 28, the night he was expected to be shifted from shortstop, by bashing a career-high three home runs and collecting a career-high eight RBIs in Seattle.
The move finally came down last night, ending a streak of 2,216 straight games at short for Ripken, and this time his teammates responded. Bobby Bonilla blasted a three-run homer and Chris Hoiles hit a one-out, two-run shot in the ninth inning, turning a 6-3 deficit into an 8-6 Orioles win before 43,192 fans at Camden Yards, ending a five-game losing streak.
The shortstop switch had coincided with a win, but Johnson still was cautious after the game.
"I'm probably the most hated man in Baltimore right now," Johnson said after the victory.
Fittingly, Ripken started the rally.
He led off the ninth with a routine ground ball that rolled right through the legs of Blue Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez, the first sign that higher powers were indeed at play here.
Rafael Palmeiro slapped a single to right field and Bonilla jumped on the first pitch thrown to him by Blue Jays closer Mike Timlin and planted it in the right-field bleachers. The game was tied.
One out and a Luis Polonia single later, Hoiles, who looked bad in his three prior at-bats (two strikeouts and a nubber to the pitcher), strode to the plate and unleashed a shot over the left-field wall. The game -- and the first victory since July 6 -- was over.
Late-inning heroics are nothing new for Hoiles.
He hit a game-winning grand slam against Seattle on May 17 and almost won a game against Boston right before the All-Star break, until a Red Sox comeback negated the short-lived lead his homer provided.
Hoiles has hit just .206 in his last 27 games and was put on waivers by the Orioles a few weeks ago but was not claimed by any other team.
"You could say a lot of us were overdue today," Johnson said. "Not just Chris."
Alexander has struggled, too. He is hitless in his last 14 at-bats and struck out in his first two at-bats last night. Alexander, who has just 40 at-bats this season, did not get any chances in the field.
Ripken went 0-for-4, reaching twice on errors. But the Blue Jays could not resist testing him in the field and wasted no time -- the first two Jays batters of the game trying to lay down bunts. Leadoff man Otis Nixon was so intent on putting one down the third base line that he bunted foul with two strikes -- a strikeout.
Ripken and Toronto manager Cito Gaston exchanged chuckles after the episode, with Ripken asking, "When are you going to take the bunt sign off?" Ripken, and the Orioles, had won the first battle of the night.
Ripken would be tested soon enough, though, and passed with flying colors -- literally. Ripken dove back to his right to snag a third-inning drive by Charlie O'Brien and, from one knee, threw out the catcher at first, Palmeiro scooping out the low throw.
Ripken handled three other grounders without any difficulty, starting a 5-4-3 double play in the eighth.
"He put on a clinic -- Brooks Robinson was back out there. He was outstanding," Johnson said.
"It was nerve-racking," said Ripken. "It's an intense position, because you have to think of everything before it happens."
Surprisingly, recent International League graduates Rick Krivda and Huck Flener mowed down hitter after hitter early in the game.
Flener had not pitched in the majors since 1993, when he pitched 6 2/3 innings with the Blue Jays. He spent most of 1994 on the disabled list after having arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow in July, but led Toronto's Triple-A team in wins and ERA this year before getting a second chance at the bigs.
Krivda, who last pitched at Triple-A Rochester in early May, would give in first.
He retired the first seven batters he faced, then Robert Perez doubled to left. Gonzalez nearly decapitated Krivda with a drive back to the mound for a base hit, putting runners at first and third. Krivda hung tough, though, and struck out Nixon.
But one out remained, one that Krivda would get four runs later. Tomas Perez singled to right-center to open the scoring and then Juan Samuel unloaded a soaring three-run home run to left-center to give the Blue Jays a 4-0 bulge.
Flener's first major-league start was flawless for two innings. Then Mark Smith, who faced Flener in Triple-A, hit a Samuel-esque homer, another high fly ball. This one landed in the Orioles' bullpen, a bit more toward center than the first shot.
Palmeiro's two-run homer made it 4-3 in the fourth inning, but the Jays' lead expanded in the fifth inning, when Jacob Brumfield hit a line drive that barely made it to the first few rows of the stands and put the Jays up 6-3.
The homer ended Krivda's night. He lasted 5 2/3 innings, the fourth straight start he's failed to reach the sixth inning since being moved from the bullpen. He has yielded 16 earned runs in that stretch, with a 7.35 ERA in those four starts.
Flener didn't look like he needed help from the bullpen, but he got it anyway. He was pulled after six innings and appeared on the verge of his first major-league victory when Timlin entered the game.
"If it isn't one thing, it's another," Gaston said. "That's the way this season has gone."
Krivda was replaced by his antithesis, Jimmy Haynes. Haynes, who was in Triple-A last year, is 2-0 with 2.51 ERA in relief since Krivda replaced him in the rotation.
Haynes worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings to pick up his third win. With the help of Bonilla, Hoiles and . . . oh yes, the wrath of Ripken.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35 TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Juan Guzman (8-6, 3.21) vs. Orioles' Mike Mussina (11-6, 4.86)
Tickets: 4,400 remain
Pub Date: 7/16/96