Slowly, silently, Camden Yards emptied yesterday after the Orioles' 8-7, 10-inning loss to Milwaukee, 46,542 fans departing quietly, as they would leave an interment. Ushers said goodbye to familiar faces, best wishes for the off-season, in case the last Oriole Park game of 1996 has been played.
Nobody knows if the Orioles, all but out of the American League East race and 1 1/2 games ahead of Seattle in the wild-card race after the Mariners' 4-3 loss to California last night, have what it takes to clinch a playoff spot while playing their final six games on the road, in Boston and Toronto. Nobody knows if they'll get the big hits, if they can make the plays, if they can make the critical pitches. Nobody knows if the Orioles have the right stuff.
They didn't yesterday, in a defeat that silenced the clubhouse. Brady Anderson, who made the last out with the potential tying and winning runs on base, sat facing his locker and politely waved off a television reporter. Mike Mussina, who gave up six runs in seven innings, spoke in monotone, subdued. Rafael Palmeiro gently shushed his 6-year-old son, Patrick, who wanted to know if he could play in the batting cages.
Managers, players and coaches are fond of saying games in April and May mean as much as games in September. And then they prove themselves wrong. "It's a game we had to have," said Palmeiro."
Orioles manager Davey Johnson: "We have to win every ballgame."
Mussina: "It's come down to a point where we need to win them all."
Jesse Orosco: "Now we're going to have to be road warriors."
The Orioles finished the regular season with 43 victories and 38 losses at home, but few losses have been so excruciating as No. 38, a game the Orioles led 7-5 in the top of the eighth inning.
Baseball gremlins haunted pitchers in this game. Both homers off Mussina bounced off the foul poles, and the first Milwaukee run came scored after a half-swing double by John Jaha that rolled over first base; Mussina and Palmeiro both looked skyward in disgust.
The Orioles came back from a 5-2 deficit against Brewers right-hander Cal Eldred in the bottom of the sixth, and almost their entire rally was based on cheap hits. Palmeiro blooped a single down the left-field line, Bobby Bonilla swung at a pitch down and away like he would hit a short wedge to the green, and flipped a looping double over the leap of third baseman Jeff Cirillo. Cal Ripken hit a line single up the middle, for two runs, but then B. J. Surhoff and Anderson dumped singles to right.
But every time the Orioles had the Brewers by the jugular, every time they were a pitch or two away from escaping trouble, they threw bad pitches.
The Brewers led 3-2 in the fifth, and had runners at second and third and two outs, with Jaha at the plate. Johnson considered intentionally walking Jaha, the Brewers' best hitter, but he sent pitching coach Pat Dobson to the mound to give Mussina the option. They decided to pitch to Jaha, but to give him nothing good to hit.
Mussina got two quick strikes on Jaha, threw a ball, and he decided to throw a cut fastball to Jaha, a pitch that runs away from right-handed hitters. Catcher Chris Hoiles set his glove slightly outside; they were hoping Jaha would chase an outside pitch.
But the cutter never really tailed away, and Jaha pulled it through the left side of the infield for a two-run single. "Mike made a couple of bad pitches," said Johnson.
The pitch to Jaha was one of those.
The Orioles rebounded, though, with the five runs in the sixth, and the lead held up through seven.
Johnson left Mussina in to face Brewers designated hitter Dave Nilsson leading off the eighth, knowing that Nilsson was 0-for-16 in his career against the Orioles' ace.
Nilsson singled off the third-base bag. "Wouldn't you know it," Johnson said later.
Johnson called for reliever Alan Mills, who immediately walked Jaha. John Valentin popped up, the first out, a big out. Brewers left fielder Marc Newfield was next, a right-handed hitter who likes to extend his arms on his swing.
Mills threw a first-pitch fastball over the outer half of the plate, and Newfield ripped it into right-center, scoring both runners. Tie game.
Jesse Orosco relieved Mills and Randy Myers replaced Orosco for the top of the ninth, and the score remained tied. Milwaukee manager Phil Garner was concerned -- he couldn't afford to play too long of a game, because his bullpen was in tatters. Right-hander Bryce Florie is out with a shoulder problem, Doug Jones was stiff and wasn't sure if he could pitch yesterday, and Mike Fetters had been hammered by a flu bug Sunday.
But Jones began to throw in the bottom of the eighth, and telling bullpen coach Bill Castro he could pitch. Jones, the man Orioles fans loved to hate last year, retired the home team in order in the bottom of the ninth, Todd Zeile, Palmeiro and Mike Devereaux.
Terry Mathews took over for Myers in the top of the 10th, and Jaha fouled off three two-strike pitches before drawing a walk. Valentin bunted him to second, but Newfield grounded out.
Brewers right fielder Matt Mieske strolled to the plate, remembering how Mathews pitched to him in 1993, when both played in Triple-A. Fastball, slider.
Mathews threw him a slider. "A good slider," Mathews said. "He went out and got it."
Mieske ripped it to left, and Jaha charged around third, knowing that Orioles left fielder Surhoff, his former teammate, probably would make a good throw. "B.J. always threw accurately," Jaha said.
Hoiles planted his left foot in front of the plate, and Jaha dived headfirst, reaching his left arm around Hoiles' leg, quickly touching home, before he slid past home. Safe. Mathews, backing up the play, briefly argued Jaha never made contact with the plate, but Hoiles and Johnson didn't contest the call. "No question," Johnson said. "He touched home."
Fetters, huffing and puffing and stomping around the mound like an angry hereford bull, retired the first two Orioles in the bottom of the 10th. Then Surhoff singled and Hoiles singled, and Anderson had a chance to be a hero. But he flied out to left, ending the game.
Pitching coach Pat Dobson leaned back in his chair in the clubhouse, cup of coffee in hand. "We need help tonight," he said, referring to the Mariners' game against California. "Chuck Finley."
It's come down to this: Not only do the Orioles know who the Mariners are playing, but also who is pitching against Seattle.
It's September. Every game means everything. Nobody knows.
Down the stretch
Day .. .. ..O's .. .. ..NY .. ..Chi .. ..Sea
9/24 .. .. .Bos .. .. ..Mil .. ..KC .. ..Cal
9/25 .. .. .Bos .. .. ..Mil .. ..KC .. ..Cal
9/26 .. .. .Tor .. .. ..Bos .. .. .. .. .Oak
9/27 .. .. .Tor .. .. ..Bos .. ..Min .. .Oak
9/28 .. .. .Tor .. .. ..Bos .. ..Min .. .Oak
9/29 .. .. .Tor .. .. ..Bos .. ..Min .. .Oak
9/30 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Cle*
Home games in bold
*-makeup, if necessary
Pub Date: 9/24/96