TORONTO -- Remember how the Orioles lost four home games to the Yankees in July, with New York fans conquering Camden Yards? How about Mo Vaughn's homer to beat the Orioles the night before the All-Star break? Remember all the trade talks, the early unhappiness of Bobby Bonilla, Kent Mercker, the supposedly permanent switch of Cal Ripken to third?
The Orioles survived all of it, and tonight they could clinch their first playoff berth in 13 years. Rookie Rocky Coppinger shut down Toronto, 4-1, last night, and coupled with Seattle's 7-5 loss to Oakland, the Orioles have a 2 1/2 -game edge over the Mariners, with three games remaining.
If the Orioles win today and the Mariners lose, the Orioles would qualify for the playoffs and play host to Cleveland in the first two games of the divisional series next Tuesday and Wednesday at Camden Yards.
Any combination of two Orioles victories and Seattle defeats, and the Orioles will officially justify owner Peter Angelos' decision to block the July trades of Bonilla and David Wells.
Had the Orioles not rebounded, history would've treated them as the most overrated and/or underachieving team of 1996.
Instead, Davey Johnson likely will become the first Orioles skipper to manage in the postseason since Joe Altobelli, Roberto Alomar the first Orioles second baseman to play in the playoffs since Rick Dauer, Cal Ripken the first Orioles shortstop to hit in the playoffs since Cal Ripken.
"Making the playoffs would mean a lot, especially considering how far this team has come in the last six weeks," said Orioles left fielder Brady Anderson, who hit his 48th homer -- and his 11th homer leading off a game last night, tying a major-league record set by Bobby Bonds in 1973.
Johnson said: "I know what the magic number is, but I'm not going to get too excited about it. I probably won't get excited about it until we're a couple of outs away, and when we are, I'll probably go into atrial fib [atrial fibrillation, a rapid heart rate, which hospitalized him earlier in the season]."
Johnson declined to consider such questions as who would pitch the first game of the playoffs, whether Coppinger will start or relieve against Cleveland. Too soon for that, he said. Almost clinching isn't the same as clinching.
"One thing I learned in this game a long time ago," Johnson said, "is to never take things for granted, and never look ahead. We need everyone's undivided attention."
They had it yesterday. Sort of. Before the game, as the Orioles took batting practice, broadcaster Jon Miller stood on the edge of the field with a sports pager in his hand, and he provided play-by-play -- naturally -- of the ongoing game between Seattle and Oakland, for anybody who asked.
Todd Zeile asked a lot, as did Bonilla. Seattle went ahead 5-3, and Zeile called Miller over and asked to see the pager. Oakland began to rally when Zeile held the pager, and so he hung onto it, honoring the instant superstition, and the A's scored four runs and won. Shortly after the Orioles took the field, some players in the clubhouse saw the final flash on CNN, and word spread around the dugout.
Coppinger had other things on his mind, however: Following up on Rick Krivda's pivotal victory against Boston on Wednesday night. Pushing through nervousness that kept him awake early yesterday morning. Proving to Johnson the strained muscle in his forearm is healthy again. Picking up his 10th victory.
He did it all, in one of the best efforts by an Orioles starter this
year. Toronto had only one hit in the first six innings, a double by Alex Gonzalez in the third. "That's an outstanding performance by a rookie pitcher," said Johnson. "That's as good as it gets."
Anderson's homer gave the Orioles the quick lead against Woody Williams, who allowed just one hit to the Orioles over 5 2/3 innings last week. Last night, they jumped on him for their four runs in the first four innings.
Rafael Palmeiro doubled to lead off the fourth, Bonilla walked, and then Ripken pulled a three-run homer down the left-field line, for his 100th, 101st and 102nd RBIs of the year. Ripken is the fourth Oriole to drive in 100 or more runs this year, joining Anderson, Palmeiro and Bonilla.
Coppinger shut out the Blue Jays through the eighth, and because of his low pitch count, Johnson left him in for the ninth inning. With one out, Jacob Brumfield singled, and Johnson jogged to the mound.
"How are you doing?" Johnson asked.
Coppinger replied, with emphasis, "I'm fine."
But Brumfield stole second and scored on a single by Shawn Green, and Coppinger was finished, having allowed no walks, five hits and striking out seven. Jesse Orosco and Armando Benitez finished off the Blue Jays.
If the Orioles win tonight, they won't know for several more hours if they've clinched; Seattle's game at Oakland won't start until 10: 05 p.m. EDT. Johnson's not sure if he'll wait up to see the final score from Oakland.
"Probably not," said Johnson. "I've got enough aggravation. I don't want to put myself through that."
But Ripken probably will. He has played with evident emotion the last week, pumping his arms after big outs. Ripken threw out the first pitch before Game 1 of the World Series last year, and being on the field before such a meaningful game reminded him of what he'd been missing.
"I hadn't been in that atmosphere since '83," Ripken said. "When I walked out on the mound, I was thinking, 'I want to be out here, playing in this.'
"I'm looking forward to having that opportunity again. We're not there yet."
But they're close. Very, very close.
............. W-L ..... GB ..... GR
Orioles ..... 87-72 ... -- ..... 3
Seattle ..... 84-74 ... 2 1/2 .. 4
Chicago ..... 84-75 ... 3 ...... 3
Combination of Orioles wins and other team's losses needed for Orioles to clinch wild card:
To eliminate Seattle: 2
To eliminate Chicago: 1
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (13-11, 5.05) vs. Blue Jays' Paul Quantrill (5-14, 5.48)
Pub Date: 9/27/96