Orioles third base coach Sam Perlozzo couldn't remember the last time he flashed a hit-and-run sign before last night. Three weeks, he guessed.
Three weeks since the Orioles last used a play some teams use two or three times a game. The Orioles live and die with the home run, so naturally, when Perlozzo relayed the hit-and-run sign to Cal Ripken in the sixth inning last night, he shocked everybody. The Detroit Tigers, base runners Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla, the whole free world.
But Ripken successfully executed, his hit-and-run double driving in the tying run and setting up the winning run in the Orioles' 5-4 victory over Detroit. Scott Erickson gave up the four runs (three earned) in the first two innings, but he and relievers Jesse Orosco and Randy Myers held the Tigers hitless over the final 6 1/3 innings, and Erickson won for the sixth time in his last seven decisions.
The noose around New York grows ever tighter: The Orioles are 2 1/2 games behind the Yankees, the closest they've been since June 20. And the Orioles, winners of 27 of their last 42, are a half-game in back of the White Sox, as the two teams begin a critical three-game series tonight at Camden Yards.
"I think we've been playing the same way we were at the beginning of the season," said Roberto Alomar, referring to the Orioles' 11-2 start. "Everybody's real happy. . . . When you look in the paper, you see Baltimore's in the pennant race."
The Orioles did not get through the night without relying on their beloved long ball at least a little. Todd Zeile, whose error in the second inning cost the Orioles a run and threatened to ruin his 31st birthday, bashed a three-run homer in the third, slicing Detroit's early 4-0 advantage to a single run.
The Orioles have hit at least one homer in their last 11 games, and they've hit 232 this year, eight short of the all-time record.
But the Orioles proved that mankind cannot live on home runs alone. The Orioles' cigar-store third base coach moved in the sixth inning last night, and there were 42,562 witnesses to see it. "The play of the game," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson.
The Orioles trailed 4-3 as Palmeiro led off the bottom of the sixth, and he pulled a single to right. Bonilla drew a walk, and the crowd roared expectantly with Ripken walking to the plate. Here comes another three-run homer.
Ripken, however, has been struggling at the plate. As he looked to Perlozzo for a sign, sent from Johnson, Ripken hadn't driven in a run in 12 games, hadn't hit a homer in 17 games. Above all, Ripken wanted to advance Palmeiro and Bonilla to second and third, and avoid the double play.
Perlozzo gave him the sign to advance the runners in whatever way he felt most comfortable, and Ripken squared to bunt and took ball one.
Perlozzo's next sign: Swing away. "What we were hoping there was maybe Cal would get a [pitch] to hit," Perlozzo said.
But Ripken swung and missed. One ball and one strike. Perlozzo again signed Ripken to advance the runners, and Ripken, turning to bunt again, took ball two.
Ripken stepped out of the box and looked to Perlozzo, who flashed the hit-and-run. The sluggin' Orioles, putting runners in motion, doing that wimpy National League stuff.
"When I gave the sign," Perlozzo said, "Raffy gave me a double-take. I was thinking, 'Lord, don't make me repeat that.' "
Palmeiro said: "I couldn't believe it."
Perlozzo worried that if the Tigers saw him repeat the signs, they might suspect something was going on. But Ripken, like Palmeiro, wasn't sure of what he just saw, and he stepped out of the box and churned his bat in a circle in Perlozzo's direction: Go over that again.
Perlozzo repeated his sign, feeling sure the Tigers suspected nothing, because he had just heard a coach in the Detroit dugout yelling at third baseman Phil Hiatt to back up and ignore Ripken's prior threats to bunt.
Ripken walked back into the box, and as Tigers starter Omar Olivares began his motion, Palmeiro broke from second, Bonilla from first. Olivares' pitch tailed down and in, out of the strike zone, and Ripken pulled it sharply into the ground, right at the third base bag. Hiatt moved to his right, and the thought flashed into Perlozzo's head that if Hiatt caught the ball on the bounce, he'd have a great chance for the triple play.
The ball bounced through and down the left-field line, Palmeiro scored, Bonilla stopped at third and Ripken pulled into second. Tie game.
"That turned out to be the big play in the game," said Palmeiro.
It got even bigger when, three batters later, Chris Hoiles, pinch-hitting for Mark Parent, lifted a fly to short left field. Left fielder Curtis Pride charged the ball and caught it and threw homeward on the run, but his weak throw up the first base line had no chance of getting Bonilla at the plate. Orioles 5, Tigers 4.
Erickson held the lead through the seventh inning and one batter into the eighth, before Orosco relieved; Erickson wanted to continue on, but Johnson did not want left-handed-hitting Orioles killer Bobby Higginson to face a right-hander. Orosco struck out Higginson and closed out the eighth, and Myers pitched the ninth, striking out two, for his 28th save.
Zeile mused later about the Orioles' offense. "This team," he said, "has an ability to explode in any inning. I'm sure that same feeling extends to opposing pitchers and opposing benches -- 'When are they going to erupt?' "
Erupt, sure. But with a hit-and-run? The Orioles?
Opponent: Chicago White Sox
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35 TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: White Sox's Kevin Tapani (12-8, 4.41) vs. O's David Wells (10-13, 4.69)
Tickets: 5,600 remain.
Pub Date: 9/10/96