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Surprise! O's survive in an epic

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEVELAND -- It wasn't a game, it was a saga: 281 minutes of brilliance and blunders.

"The toughest game I ever played in," Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said.

It started in bright midday sunshine and ended in long evening shadows, in a stadium so silent you could hear a pennant drop.

After 12 withering innings, the Orioles were the ones left standing as they celebrated one of the greatest triumphs in the franchise's 42-year history.

"We were dead in the ninth inning and we came back," Cal Ripken said. "It's the greatest feeling."

Roberto Alomar was twice a hero, with a single in the ninth that tied the game and a home run in the 12th that gave the Orioles a 4-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 4 of their American League Division Series.

The victory knocked the favored Indians out of the playoffs, gave Baltimore its happiest sports surprise since 1966 and left the Orioles almost too tired to pour champagne in the clubhouse.

"We're exhausted," Palmeiro said. "We don't have anything left after a game like that."

They'd better; starting Tuesday they'll play the New York Yankees in an American League Championship Series that should resemble the sporting version of "Apocalypse Now."

Angelos vs. Steinbrenner, with a World Series berth at stake.

"It should be wild and crazy," Orioles outfielder Mike Devereaux said, "and I can't wait."

The Indians figured to be there; after winning 99 regular-season games, 11 more than the Orioles, they were heavily favored to defend their AL title.

Less than a year after stealing Cleveland's pro football team, Baltimore now has stolen Cleveland's World Series dream, too.

"They're still a great team," Palmeiro said, "but we deserved to win this series."

Actually, the Orioles made more than enough mistakes to lose yesterday and force a fifth game tonight.

They struck out 23 times, setting a major-league postseason game record, and committed a series of blunders that would have doomed them to a fitful winter had they wound up losing the series.

They failed to score in the fifth even though the Indians gave them two extra outs with misplays.

They gave the Indians a golden chance in the ninth when they let a pop-up fall behind the mound.

Ripken ran them out of a threat in the 10th when he slipped going around second base and was tagged out.

"So many highs and lows," Devereaux said. "That was one intense game."

They were down a run in the top of the ninth against the Indians' peerless closer, Jose Mesa, who had not blown a save since late July and was throwing 96-mph fastballs into late-afternoon shadows.

Talk about mission impossible.

Pete Incaviglia struck out to start the ninth and spoke to the next batter, B. J. Surhoff, going back to the dugout.

"It's hard to see in the shadows," Incaviglia said. "You have to bear down."

Surhoff, pinch hitting for Chris Hoiles, limped to the plate on a sore knee and hamstring.

"I never saw the first two pitches until they hit the glove," Surhoff said. "The shadows were bad."

Then he "fished a little bit," stuck his bat out, made contact and lined a single into center field. He limped off the field as Manny Alexander came in to pinch run. Kirk Gibson couldn't have done it better.

Brady Anderson followed with a single, moving Alexander to second, but Todd Zeile fouled out to put the Indians within one out of winning. The largest crowd in Jacobs Field history shook the stands with a roar.

"I can say this now," Ripken said, "but Game 5 wouldn't have been a good situation."

Alomar, with the world rooting against him in the wake of his spitting incident, got down two strikes and lined a single to center, scoring Alexander.

"When the ball fell in it was like a knife through my heart," Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel said.

The Orioles almost gave the game back in the bottom of the ninth when Palmeiro ran into Zeile as they converged on a pop-up behind the mound. Palmeiro knocked the ball out of Zeile's glove.

"I couldn't hear him calling for it," Palmeiro said. "The crowd was too loud."

After Ripken's base-running blunder in the 10th, the Orioles were working on a crushing defeat, but then Alomar led off the 12th with a long home run to right-center, Randy Myers closed the game in the bottom of the inning and the Orioles piled onto the field.

The stands emptied as winter in Cleveland began sooner than expected.

"That ranks right up there with the toughest games," Ripken said. "It was one of the most draining games, just mentally and physically taxing."

The 23 strikeouts by Orioles batters set a club record and gave the day almost a surreal feel. From the second into the middle of the eighth, 17 of the Orioles' 21 outs came on strikeouts. They had nine in a row at one point.

"The shadows were bad, but we got too anxious," Palmeiro said.

"And we still won," Devereaux said, "which is why baseball is the greatest game."

The upset of the Indians was the biggest for the Orioles since their World Series sweep of the Dodgers in 1966.

They lost to the Mets in a huge Series upset three years later, less than a year after the Colts lost to the Jets in a landmark Super Bowl upset.

It has been a long time since Baltimore was on the right end of one of these playoff stunners.

"This is the greatest," Palmeiro said. "We were dead in July. We weren't supposed to get here. Now we're playing great. No matter who or where we play, we feel like we're going to win."

They had to endure an epic that included 12 innings, 10 pitching changes, 90 at-bats, 21 hits, 21 stranded runners and an incredible 33 strikeouts yesterday, but they popped champagne in the end.

"Baseball just doesn't get any more exciting than this," Ripken said. "Moments like this, series like this, are why you play the game."

Winning ugly

The Orioles won Game 4 of the Division Series against Cleveland despite the errors of their ways:

Hitting air: They struck out a playoff-record 23 times, including nine straight outs at one point.

Hitting ground: In the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied at 3, one out and Manny Ramirez at second, they allowed a pop-up by Sandy Alomar to drop just behind the pitcher's mound when first baseman Rafael Palmeiro bumped into third baseman Todd Zeile.

Taking the fifth: In the top of the fifth, with the score tied, 2-2, the Orioles put runners on first and second with one out, courtesy of three straight miscues by the Indians -- two fielding blunders and a mental mistake. Starting pitcher Charles Nagy had Brady Anderson trapped between second and third when he fielded a come-backer by Roberto Alomar, but he allowed Anderson to get back to second without making a throw. However, Nagy escaped the predicament with strikeouts of Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla, and his club took a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the inning.

Stuck in neutral: In the top of the 10th, with Cal Ripken on first, Eddie Murray singled to right, but Ripken was tagged out by shortstop Omar Vizquel when he stopped between second and third and tried to get back to second. Vizquel took a perfect throw from right fielder Ramirez.

And in the clutch: Before Roberto Alomar's two-out, two-strike single in the top of the ninth that scored Manny Alexander to tie the game at 3, the Orioles had been 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position.

Pub Date: 10/06/96

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