Forget the qualifiers for a moment, forget the fact that there are still five weeks to play. Imagine the season ended last night.
The Orioles would be in the playoffs. They would play Cleveland in a best-of-five series.
OK, back to reality: The Orioles moved into first place in the wild-card race with a 5-4 win over the California Angels last night, passing the Chicago White Sox as Mike Mussina pitched seven innings for his sixth straight victory and 17th of the season.
The Orioles hold the high ground in the wild-card race, standing two games in front of Chicago and Seattle in the loss column with 34 games to play. As the ninth inning began, the "Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye" song blared throughout Camden Yards, 46,487 fans singing along as Chicago's 9-2 loss to Toronto was highlighted on the JumboTron.
And although Randy Myers had to escape a bases-loaded jam in the ninth to record his 25th save, it was a happy throng that headed for the exits after Chili Davis grounded out to end it.
"I love that kind of situation," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said of the ninth inning. "Shoot, I thrive on seeing that type of situation come up as long as I know I have the right matchup."
"That's always nail-biting time," added Jesse Orosco, who pitched a scoreless eighth. "But I figured Chili Davis would foul some off or hit it somewhere. It was just a battle between those two [Myers and Davis]. No one wants to be in a battle with Chili Davis."
Perhaps that the game ended on a missed opportunity was appropriate.
The Orioles, who time and again failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities in the first four innings, fell behind 4-3 after California scored two runs in the top of the sixth.
But pinch hitter Mike Devereaux tripled off the scoreboard in right to lead off the bottom of the sixth against Kyle Abbott, and after Roberto Alomar's RBI single, a sacrifice bunt by Brady Anderson and a single to right by Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles led 5-4.
The way the first five innings played out, it was as if the Angels were trying to give the game away, doing just about everything possible to create scoring chances for the Orioles.
Right-hander Pep Harris made his second career start, and he pitched from the stretch against 19 of the 26 hitters he faced because the Orioles had so many runners. He threw 98 pitches in the first five innings, only 55 strikes. He walked the leadoff hitter in the first, second and third innings.
In spite of all of that, the Orioles trailed 2-1 after four innings. The litany of missed opportunity:
First inning. Alomar walked and stole second and Anderson pulled a single to right field. Alomar got a poor jump off second and right fielder Tim Salmon, who possesses one of the best arms in baseball, closed on the ball quickly.
But Orioles third base coach Sam Perlozzo, who is one of the best at what he does and has had a great season of holding or sending runners from third, made a mistake -- he waved Alomar home. Salmon's throw easily beat Alomar to the plate, and catcher Jorge Fabregas was waiting to apply the tag.
The Orioles scored a run in the inning anyway. Palmeiro slapped a double to left-center and Anderson, who took second on Salmon's throw home, jogged home. Nothing more: Bobby Bonilla grounded to third, B. J. Surhoff flied to right.
Second inning. Cal Ripken walked and Eddie Murray doubled into the right-field corner. Men on second and third. Nobody out.
But Chris Hoiles struck out on a breaking ball. Brent Bowers hit a weak chopper to Harris, and with one out, Ripken was breaking from third on contact. After a rundown, Ripken was out, Murray was on third and Bowers on second.
Harris walked Alomar, loading the bases. (Alomar's plate appearance was prolonged when third base umpire Mike Reilly ruled he didn't go around on a checked swing.) Didn't matter -- Anderson flied to center for the third out.
Third inning. Palmeiro walked to lead off and Bonilla singled. Same old story: Surhoff struck out. Ripken hit a one-hopper to third, an easy double-play ball, but California second baseman Randy Velarde flubbed his footwork as he turned the pivot and never could get off a throw to first and the Orioles had another chance. The Angels were begging the Orioles to score.
Murray popped out. Through the first three innings, the Orioles ,, had 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position and exactly two hits -- and Alomar was thrown out at home on one of those hits. When the groundskeepers changed bases and dragged the infield, they should've mopped up, too.
Down 2-1 after four, the Orioles finally broke through for a couple of runs. Bonilla singled home Anderson with one out, and Harris loaded the bases when he brushed the shirt of Ripken with an inside fastball. Harris fell behind Murray two balls and no strikes, waiting and waiting between pitches; the right-hander was not exactly eager to throw the ball.
The crowd buzzed, thinking of homer No. 499. Murray looked for a fastball, got it, and swung. A high fly to deep center, plenty deep to score Bonilla with the lead run, but as Murray rounded first, he muttered to himself.
The Angels countered with two runs in the top of the sixth, on three hits and a walk against Mussina, to take a 4-3 lead, before the Orioles came back in the bottom of the inning to move ahead for good.
The Orioles are now 17-8 since July 28, and Mussina (17-8) has six of those wins. The right-hander allowed eight hits and four runs in seven innings, striking out five and walking two.
Opponent: California Angels
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 35 TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Angels' Dennis Springer (3-2, 5.98) vs. O's Scott Erickson (8-10, 5.13)
! Tickets: Sold out
Pub Date: 8/25/96