NEW YORK -- It had to come down to this. The Orioles and New York Yankees fought over free agents last winter and they fought for the American League East title last month. Now, the best two baseball teams money could buy are ready to fight for a chance to play in the World Series.
Right-hander Scott Erickson will face Cy Young Award candidate Andy Pettitte tonight in the first game of the American League Championship Series, which is scheduled to begin -- soggy weather permitting -- at 8: 07 p.m. at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees are considered a solid favorite to win the pennant for the first time since 1981, but the best-of-seven series could hinge on how the Orioles handle themselves in an intensely hostile environment.
First Cleveland, now the crucible.
If rowdy Yankees fans pelted soft-spoken Texas Rangers right fielder Juan Gonzalez with coins and batteries, imagine what they might have in store for embattled second baseman Roberto Alomar and former Mets star Bobby Bonilla. Major League Baseball has beefed up security in the aftermath of the Alomar controversy, but the playoff atmosphere at Yankee Stadium still figures to be intimidating.
The Orioles got a taste of it three weeks ago, when they came to New York with an outside chance to overtake the Yankees in the division race. Instead, the Orioles slipped in through the side door, becoming the first wild-card team to advance beyond the opening round of baseball's new three-tiered playoff system.
"I think it was fate," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "This was meant to be. There has always been a great rivalry between the Yankees and Orioles.
"I know that when I was a player, the Yankees were a team that we had to beat if we wanted to win the American League, and we did. I think it only fitting that we go head-to-head to see who has the best team in the American League."
The Yankees have to feel that issue already was settled. They won the AL East and they didn't exactly sidestep their closest competitor to do it. They dominated the season series with the Orioles, winning 10 of 13 head-to-head games and holding them off in the crucial three-game series at Yankee Stadium in mid-September.
They also scored a decisive playoff victory over the AL West champion Rangers, another team that defeated the Orioles 10 times during the regular season, but none of that matters now.
The Orioles are a far different team than the one that wallowed 12 games behind the Yankees in late July and had little success against any of the other American League contenders. General manager Pat Gillick upgraded the offensive lineup during the second half of the season, and Johnson got his bullpen back together in the final weeks of play.
If there was any doubt about the quality -- and resilience -- of the club, it disappeared with the four-game victory over the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians in the Division Series.
"You know, it's funny," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "The way they set up the playoffs, they didn't want us to play the wild card [if it was from] our own division. And now we're playing the wild card in our own division. But there's no other way to get to the World Series."
"It's strange," said Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez. "But that's the way it works. Once you get to the playoffs, the hot team wins.
"They beat Cleveland. So they deserve to be here."
The series may hinge on whether the Yankees can exploit a big advantage in the bullpen and force the Orioles to press in the early innings, but Johnson says that the edge is overrated.
"I think it's the same with the Yankees," he said. "I don't think they want to see us with the lead in the seventh inning either, so the starting pitching will be critical."
Torre opted for Pettitte so that he could keep open the option of bringing him back on three days' rest for Game 4.
Johnson went with Erickson because he was the only veteran Orioles starter available to pitch on normal rest. Mike Mussina will face David Cone in Game 2 tomorrow.
Pub Date: 10/08/96