It has been a long time since the Orioles' future looked this good. April 17, to be exact, when their 11-2 record was the best in baseball and a postseason berth appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
But the four-month series of daily soap operas seems to have ended and they're playing well, and in some respects, the Orioles have come full circle. They are nine games over .500 after beating Seattle, 10-5, last night and the Orioles are playing the best baseball in the American League, winning 16 of their past 22.
They stand a half-game behind Chicago in the wild-card race and five games behind the Yankees in the AL East race, having made up seven games on New York in a little more than three weeks.
Orioles fans are taking note. A crowd of 47,198 lived and died and lived again at Camden Yards again, cheering as the Orioles took an early 5-1 lead, gasping as they gave it away, and screaming again after the Orioles regained the lead on homers by Cal Ripken (No. 21) and Bobby Bonilla (No. 18).
"It gets to be an exciting time of the year right now," Ripken said. "We're happy to be in the pennant race or even a wild-card race. No matter how you get to the playoffs, you still have a chance to get to the World Series."
The Orioles (67-58) pulled out a victory in spite of two homers by Seattle shortstop Alex Rodriguez and a three-inning relief appearance by Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson, who surrendered the three-run homer to Bonilla. If the Orioles win today and complete a sweep of their three-game series, they will be 10 games over .500 for the first time this year.
Games between the Orioles and Mariners should be televised on ESPN2, rather than ESPN, and they should be intertwined somehow with paragliding, bungee-jumping and skateboarding. Orioles vs. Mariners: Extreme Baseball. Lots of runs, lots of hits, never a lack of action. Never.
Two batters into the game, Rodriguez, who is to Generation X what Ripken is to the baby Baby Boomers, launched a tremendous home run over the center-field wall; with that, Rodriguez became only the fifth shortstop in major-league history to hit 30 homers in one year.
Naturally, the Orioles answered immediately against Seattle starter Sterling Hitchcock. Mariners vs. the Orioles, attack and counterattack, although Hitchcock was directly responsible for permitting the runs.
Ripken doubled with two outs, and Rafael Palmeiro slashed a hard grounder into the first-base hole. Seattle first baseman Paul Sorrento dove to his right and gloved the ball, a difficult play. He flipped the ball to Hitchcock, and all the Seattle pitcher needed to do to complete the play was to catch the soft toss and step on the base.
He dropped the ball. Ripken scored, and the inning continued. Bonilla walked, Eddie Murray grounded a single through the left side to score Palmeiro. The Orioles led 2-1.
They padded that lead. Roberto Alomar singled to lead off, and with two outs, he stole second and scored on a double by Palmeiro, the 110th run scored by Alomar and the 113th run driven in by Palmeiro.
B. J. Surhoff doubled with one out in the fourth inning, and Chris Hoiles blasted a two-run shot to dead center field, Hoiles' 22nd homer of the year. The Orioles led 5-1 and no pitcher pitches better with a sizable lead than Erickson.
But Erickson would not survive extreme baseball.
Mark Whiten and Dan Wilson led off the fifth with singles, and both runners advanced, to third and second respectively, on Doug Strange's groundout. Erickson jammed Joey Cora, and the Seattle second baseman got lucky: He popped a little blooper over third base, scoring Whiten.
Last year, Orioles right-hander Kevin Brown had a terrible time pitching through bad luck, letting cheap hits or errors bother him. Erickson has had that problem this year, and with Rodriguez at the plate -- 4-for-5 in his short career against Erickson -- the chances of something bad happening to the Orioles seemed almost inevitable.
Rodriguez fell behind no balls and two strikes and fouled off a pitch. It was then that Erickson threw him a thigh-high fastball, over the inside of the plate, a terrible pitch; Rodriguez swung and drove a long homer to left. That four-run lead? Gone. Good-bye.
Two batters later, Erickson hit Edgar Martinez with a pitch, and judging from Erickson's disgusted grimace, the right-hander didn't do it intentionally. But a seed was planted in the mind of home plate umpire Tim Tschida.
Ripken crushed a homer to left leading off the bottom of the fifth, the 200th homer hit by the Orioles this season, and when he returned to the dugout, Ripken went through his usual routine of staring everyone in the eyes as he accepted congratulations.
Hitchcock pitched up and in to Palmeiro, the next hitter, and when Hitchcock threw inside a second time, Tschida jumped out from behind home and warned both teams against any beanballs. Mariners manager Lou Piniella argued, gesturing, and fans roared. Pennant fever.
Palmeiro walked and Hitchcock fell behind Bonilla two balls and no strikes and Piniella called for Johnson, who dismissed three straight hitters with his sweeping slider and 95 mph fastball.
But the Orioles would get revenge in the seventh. Ripken singled, and after Palmeiro grounded to first, Sorrento threw a ball into Ripken's back trying to get a force at second. Bonilla then blistered a fastball over the left-field wall, effectively finishing the Mariners.
Archie Corbin, Jesse Orosco and Alan Mills pitched scoreless innings in the sixth, seventh and eighth.
"Our bullpen has been beefed up by the minor-league system, which is a big plus. . . . The guy that won the ballgame was Archie Corbin," manager Davey Johnson said.
What a long strange trip it's been for the Orioles since April, and who knows what is to come.
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Oriole Park
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Jamie Moyer (9-2, 4.08) vs. Orioles' Rocky Coppinger (7-4, 4.63)
Tickets: 2,000 remain
The Murray watch
The Orioles' Eddie Murray is two home runs short of 500 for his career. Here's a look at his at-bats last night:
1st inning: Vs. Hitchcock. Singled to left, driving in one run.
4th inning: Vs. Hitchcock. Flied out to left.
5th inning: Vs. Johnson. Struck out swinging.
7th inning: Vs. Johnson. Grounded out to third.
Pub Date: 8/22/96