CLEVELAND -- Folks will pick up their newspapers today, rookie Rocky Coppinger was saying after the Orioles' 14-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians yesterday, and they won't understand just how close this game actually was.
They won't understand how well Coppinger pitched, or how close the Orioles came to winning. The box score won't show how the outcome turned in the eighth inning, on a spectacular leaping catch by Cleveland center fielder Kenny Lofton, who, for the second straight Sunday, robbed the Orioles of a potential game-winning homer.
The Indians scored 11 runs in the bottom of the eighth against Jesse Orosco, Roger McDowell and Keith Shepherd to muddy the final result, but it was clear to all who participated: Lofton's catch was among the best they've ever seen. If only the Olympics lasted another week, the catch would've qualified Lofton for the high jump.
"He was climbing the fence like Spiderman," said Indians catcher Sandy Alomar.
Or Superman, or some super hero. "Only someone with extraordinary human qualities could make that catch," said McDowell.
The Orioles trailed 3-2 as the eighth inning began. Coppinger (6-3) had thrown 6 1/3 solid innings, a far different result than the last time he faced Cleveland; in that game, he was pounded for a couple of homers, a single and five RBIs by Albert Belle.
This time around, though, Coppinger was much better, refusing to give in to hitters and throw fastballs when he was behind in the count. Instead, he threw changeups and sliders and, keeping Cleveland off-balance, allowed only three hits and struck out five.
A homer by Lofton and an unearned run on an error by Roberto Alomar in the fifth gave Cleveland a 3-1 lead. The Orioles drew to within one run in the seventh, Jeffrey Hammonds rocking a bases-empty homer.
Rafael Palmeiro singled to open the eighth, and with one out, Paul Shuey threw a fastball to Orioles third baseman B. J. Surhoff, and Surhoff hammered it. A home run, Surhoff was sure. The only question was how far the ball would travel over the eight-foot wall in center field.
Lofton, shaded toward left-center, broke fast on the ball, and Surhoff was surprised. Why bother, he wondered. "I thought he was going back for the [heck] of it," Surhoff said. "I thought he was just messing around. It thought [the ball] was out easy."
Alomar, watching from the bench, didn't assume, however. On July 28 in Camden Yards, Lofton leaped high over the fence to take a homer away from Alomar, in the bottom of the 12th inning. If Lofton hadn't caught that ball, the Orioles would've won, and they now had a chance to go ahead as Surhoff's blast headed for the Indians' bullpen.
Lofton, among the fastest players in the majors, quickly neared the fence, but as he did so, he slowed down -- confirmation to Surhoff that Lofton had no chance for a catch.
What Lofton, a former University of Arizona basketball player, was actually doing was timing the play. He glanced at the fence that made up the front of the Indians' bullpen, and saw a horizontal padded bar. He jumped and lifted his right foot, hoping to plant it against the padding and propel himself above the wall.
His foot slipped slightly, but Lofton grabbed at the top of his wall with his bare left hand; it helped him in the way that grabbing a basketball rim might help somebody to dunk. All these forces worked to hoist him against gravity, his foot, his hand, the speed from his sprint, and Lofton jabbed his glove high over the wall, a backhand. He could see, out of the corner of his eye, some of the Cleveland relievers flinching away from Surhoff's ball as it descended.
But the ball never landed in the bullpen. It landed in Lofton's glove.
In the Orioles' clubhouse, Coppinger was on the phone when players in the other room, watching the game on television, screamed aloud. Coppinger dropped the phone and ran into the other room to see what happened.
Surhoff, nearing second base, stared at Lofton, stunned. The Jacobs Field crowd exploded. The Indians in the bullpen gave him a standing ovation.
"I thought it was way out," said Sandy Alomar, who was catching in the bullpen, "and Kenny came out of nowhere. . . . Everyone thought the ball was going to land on the bullpen steps, and all of a sudden we saw a piece of leather flash by.
"He ought to go get his ESPY right now. That's the play of the year."
Lofton said: "That was my best catch."
Orioles third base coach Sam Perlozzo, who watched Ken Griffey in Seattle while coaching for the Mariners, said he's never seen any outfielder fly so high to reach a ball.
McDowell was asked if he thought Surhoff's ball was out of the park. "It was out," McDowell replied. "It was not only above the fence, but over and past the fence and on its descent, and he pulled it back."
Surhoff said: "To the wrong part of the park, to the wrong guy. . . . It looks hard, but it's even harder than it looks."
Lofton's catch, Cleveland reliever Greg Swindell said, "took the air out of [the Orioles'] tires."
Absolutely. The Orioles flattened out immediately, giving up 11 runs -- all scoring with two outs. Eleven straight Cleveland hitters reached base with two outs, 10 of those scoring. Shepherd gave up two three-run homers in the span of four batters.
But those runs hardly diminished the importance, or the majesty, of Kenny Lofton's incredible catch.
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Jacobs Field, Cleveland
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' David Wells (8-10, 4.59) vs. Indians' Charles Nagy (12-3, 3.57)
Pub Date: 8/05/96