It's a happy berth-day for O's First playoff spot in 13 years brings long spray of relief; 'We were written off'; 3-2 win over Jays caps 37-21 run to postseason


TORONTO -- When Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Felipe Crespo swung and missed at Randy Myers' final pitch yesterday, clinching the Orioles' first playoff berth in 13 years, there was no crazy human pile in the middle of the infield, no mad rush of players from the dugout.

No, the Orioles, a team mostly composed of veterans, shook hands. Cal Ripken walked over to shake Roberto Alomar's hand, Myers shook with catcher Mark Parent, and then they all shook, one line of players headed toward the outfield, one toward the dugout, as they would after a game in May and June. There were a few quick, wooden embraces, but all in all, it was very sedate.

Manager Davey Johnson said later they all felt relief, as they retreated to the clubhouse to celebrate the pivotal 3-2 victory, won on Alomar's 10th-inning homer off left-hander Paul Spoljaric. Relief they had made the playoffs, in a season of high expectations, relief they had managed to hang on, at the end of a week of uncertainty.

"Emotionally, I wanted to win this more than anything I've ever won," said Johnson. "For the city, the fans and for ownership. When you want something that bad, it takes more of a toll on you."

Once Johnson and his players got into the clubhouse, however, the tranquil Orioles -- who play Cleveland in a best-of-five playoff that starts Tuesday at Camden Yards -- let out their emotions, spraying champagne and beer on each other, on reporters, anybody within range.

Tony Tarasco poured a beer on Ripken's head. Manny Alexander unloaded a cooler of water on Eddie Murray. Players taped first base coach John Stearns to the trainer's table and doused all sorts of stuff over him.

Armando Benitez sat in front of his locker, tears welling in his eyes. General manager Pat Gillick dumped ice down the pants of scout Carlos Bernhardt. Bobby Bonilla smoked a cigar, and called owner Peter Angelos to congratulate him. Most wore hats and T-shirts signifying them as the wild-card winners -- wet T-shirts, wet hats.

Mike Mussina, who pitched eight good innings but did not get his 20th victory, said, "It's exciting. It's the first time I've ever had a big game like this in September that means anything."

Brady Anderson said: "It's more a sense of relief for me."

Murray: "We got here, and it feels great, because we were written off by a lot of people."

Absolutely. Many fans, media and even the front office didn't think the Orioles were headed anywhere, after the New York Yankees swept four games from them in July. Gillick and assistant GM Kevin Malone, with Johnson in agreement, decided to trade Bonilla and pitcher David Wells for a horde of young players and begin focusing on 1997.

In the days before the July 31 trade deadline, however, Angelos vetoed the trades, saying he didn't believe it was right to start rebuilding with two months to play.

Faced with a new set of parameters, Gillick and Malone traded for reliever Terry Mathews and sluggers Todd Zeile and Pete Incaviglia, and the Orioles started winning -- 37 of their past 58 games. Once 12 games behind the Yankees, they drew within 2 1/2 games of New York, before faltering in the past 10 days.

"To me, it would've been a major collapse if we didn't get the wild card," Johnson said.

But left-hander Rick Krivda beat the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday in a crucial victory, Rocky Coppinger won Thursday and, after losing Friday, the Orioles played the Blue Jays knowing they could eliminate Seattle and Chicago with a victory.

They took a 2-1 lead in the seventh, when B. J. Surhoff hit his 21st homer. Mussina shut out Toronto in the seventh and the eighth, and Johnson called in Armando Benitez to close out the Jays in the ninth.

But Ed Sprague hit a game-tying homer, sending the game into extra innings. Alomar, batting with two outs in the top of the 10th, ripped a fastball, stood at home plate for a moment and raised both arms, bat in one hand. Angelos, watching in his living room in Baltimore, said he knew Alomar had hit a homer.

Myers struck out the last two hitters in the bottom of the 10th, and Angelos sat and watched; like his players, he had no special and immediate reaction planned.

Angelos said: "I get more demonstrative when we're losing. When we win, I'm just very, very appreciative."

Angelos was asked about his decision to hold the team together. "You call some right, call some wrong," he said. "This time it appears I chose the right direction. The team had the capacity to win the wild card, so I'm just comforted the right decision was made."

Gillick called Angelos, Malone as well, from the clubhouse. "The whole group was loud, and sounded pretty happy," said Angelos.

Johnson said before the game that if the Orioles clinched, he wanted a measured celebration; this is only the first step, he said. "You've got the first round," said Johnson, "the league championship, then the World Series. The object is to win the World Series. The object is to be the best team in baseball."

Murray, whose arrival, by all accounts, was a turning point, reiterated this point, just before getting doused by Alexander. "We haven't won a championship yet," he said. "We're just in the playoffs."

For a team and town that has waited for more than a decade, that's good enough for today.

Orioles vs. Indians in 1996 (Indians win series, 7-5)

Date, Site, Score ............... Winner, Loser ......... Skinny

4/10, Bal., Orioles, 3-2 (10) ... Orosco, Tavarez ....... Palmeiro hits game-winning RBI single in 10th

4/11, Bal., Orioles, 14-4 ....... Erickson, Hershiser ... O's hit 6 homers to complete 2-game sweep

4/22, Cle., Indians, 6-3 ........ Nagy, Erickson ........ Indians steal 5 bases; Baerga has two RBIs

4/23, Cle., Indians, 9-8 ........ Ogea, Mussina ......... Ramirez and Belle each hit 3-run homers

7/25, Bal., Indians, 10-7 ....... Nagy, Coppinger ....... Belle: 2 HRs, single, 5 RBIs vs. Coppinger

7/26, Bal., Indians, 14-9 ....... Assenmacher, Mussina .. Indians: 20 hits vs. Mussina, three relievers

7/27, Bal., Orioles, 14-2 ....... Wells, Hershiser ...... Palmeiro: 2-for-3, grand slam, double

7/28, Bal., Indians, 6-3 (13) ... Mesa, Stephenson ...... Thome hits game-winning, 3-run HR in 13th

8/2, Cle., Indians, 11-1 ........ Hershiser, Erickson ... Hershiser limits O's to 2 hits in 7 innings

8/3, Cle., Orioles, 9-4 ......... Orosco, Ogea .......... O's end 10-game losing streak at Jacobs Field

8/4, Cle., Indians, 14-2 ........ Anderson, Coppinger ... Indians score 11 runs in 8th inning

8/5, Cle., Orioles, 13-10 ....... Wells, Assenmacher .... Orioles take 13-3 lead into 8th inning

Orioles today

Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays

Site: SkyDome, Toronto

Time: 1:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Nerio Rodriguez (0-0, 5.91) vs. Blue Jays' Pat Hentgen (19-10, 3.27)

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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