Two more outs.
Orioles right-hander Mike Mussina needed to retire just two more batters last night to become the 13th pitcher in modern major-league history to throw a perfect game, but Cleveland Indians catcher Sandy Alomar would not cooperate.
Alomar lashed a sharp single into left field with one out in the
ninth inning and Mussina had to settle for his second career one-hitter and a 3-0 victory before a slightly deflated sellout crowd of 47,759 at Camden Yards.
It was a somewhat disappointing end to a masterful performance, but Mussina smiled wryly as the line drive touched down and kept him from becoming the first pitcher to throw a no-hitter at Oriole Park and the first Oriole to throw a perfect game.
Then he went back to work, striking out the final two batters to secure a victory that increased the Orioles' division lead to 8 1/2 games over the New York Yankees.
"I was just so surprised to be in that situation in the first place that at that point I wanted to get back into a real baseball game and out of whatever fantasy I was in," Mussina said. "I feel fortunate that I was able to go out there and make a run at it."
What a run it was. Mussina (7-1) was overpowering from the start. He struck out two of the first three batters he faced and allowed only one ball out of the infield through the first five innings.
That was no easy task against the hard-hitting Indians lineup, which is on a pace to challenge the single-season home-run record (257) set by the Orioles last season.
The crowd began to sense in the middle innings that something special might be in the air. Mussina was showered with cheers as he left the mound after retiring the Indians in the fifth and got a semi-standing ovation after he struck out Alomar and Omar Vizquel to complete a perfect sixth.
The suspense continued to build as Mussina retired batter after batter. Marquis Grissom flied out to open the seventh. Julio Franco grounded wide of second, but not wide enough to get it past a nearly healthy Roberto Alomar. Jim Thome followed with a routine grounder to second. Another standing ovation or was it just the seventh-inning stretch?
"It wasn't really excitement for me," Mussina said. "I was just amazed that it was still going that it was still possible. It's not like I'm a Randy Johnson or a Nolan Ryan who can step up at any time and throw a no-hitter."
The Indians went down on three fly balls in the eighth, which may have been an indication that Mussina was beginning to tire. He opened the ninth by falling behind 3-1 in the count to Tony Fernandez, but got another routine ground ball to second to bring Sandy Alomar to the plate.
And that was that. The 1-1 pitch sailed down the left-field line. There was never a doubt that it would fall in fair territory. The crowd audibly gasped, then spontaneously rose in another standing ovation for Mussina, who collected himself and put the finishing touches on his seventh victory of the year.
"He pitched an outstanding game," said Sandy Alomar. "He had everything going -- fastball, curve, changeup. He was perfect."
Except for that one pitch, a fastball on the inside part of the plate that was just a little bit up in the strike zone.
"It actually was a little bit of a relief," Mussina said. "I was trying to keep focused on the game. It was a situation where we were up 3-0, so if one more guy got on base, I would be pitching to the tying run. I had to bear down and I was able to focus and get two more outs to bring it in."
Still, it would have been nice to throw the first Orioles no-hitter since Bob Milacki, Mike Flanagan, Mark Williamson and Gregg Olson combined to no-hit the Oakland Athletics on July 13, 1991. Mussina, who one-hit Texas in July 1992, would have been the first individual Orioles pitcher to throw a no-hitter since Hall of Famer Jim Palmer threw one against the A's on Aug. 13, 1969.
"He just threw everything for strikes," said Indians outfielder David Justice, who grounded out twice and flied out to lower his league-leading average to .384. "He made all the pitches he needed to make. We didn't hit too many balls hard. You've got to give him credit for a great pitching performance tonight."
Though there is nothing crucial about this four-game series, it presented another small test for the Orioles, who have dominated every contending team they have faced so far except Cleveland.
The Indians took two of three games last weekend at Jacobs Field in a series that was decided by a one-run game on Sunday. That's just the reverse of last year, when the Orioles were overmatched in their season series against the division-winning Rangers and Yankees, but played the Indians tough and upset them in the Divisional Series.
Mussina was the exception. He lost both of his regular-season starts against Cleveland last year and ran up a 14.81 ERA doing it. He came into the season with a 2-6 career record against the Indians, but must have figured something out over the winter, because he defeated the Indians, 8-3, on Saturday and dominated the Cleveland lineup last night.
Indians starter Charles Nagy also registered a victory in the series last weekend and came into last night's game with a 6-4 lifetime record against the Orioles, but he had to pull a great
escape to keep the game from getting out of hand in the first inning -- after allowing base hits to the first three batters he faced.
Brady Anderson led off the first with a line drive down the right-field line for a double and Alomar bunted for a hit before Rafael Palmeiro gave the Orioles the lead with a hump-back single to right. Cal Ripken moved both runners up with a high chopper back to the mound, setting up an intriguing early-inning situation for fill-in Indians manager Jeff Newman.
Newman, who was managing the club because Mike Hargrove had gone home to attend his daughter's high school graduation, chose to order an intentional walk to left-handed-hitting B. J. Surhoff, loading the bases for designated hitter Pete Incaviglia.
It isn't every day that an intentional walk is handed out in the first inning, but Newman gambled on the percentages. Surhoff came into the game with 12 hits in 31 lifetime at-bats against Nagy (.387). Incaviglia had two hits in seven career at-bats. One big swing would have turned the game into a blowout, but Nagy struck out both Incaviglia and Tony Tarasco to get out of the inning.
The Orioles added another run in the third inning, when Alomar reached second on an infield single and an error, then came around to score on a groundout and a fielder's choice.
The third Orioles run also scored with the help of an infield error. Not exactly an explosive offensive assault, but it didn't look like the Orioles were going to need much.
"[Mussina] pitched a great game," said Nagy (6-3). "From a pitcher's standpoint, it's nice to see, but you don't like to see it on the day you're pitching."
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Oriole Park Time: 1: 15 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Indians' Orel Hershiser (5-2, 4.89) vs. O's Mike Johnson (0-0, 4.22)
Tickets: 200 remain
IP .. .. .. .. H .. ..R .. ..ER .. ..BB .. ..SO
9 .. .. .. .. .1 .. ..0 .. ...0 .. ...0 .. ..10
Number of pitches .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..115
Strikes .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .77
Balls .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ...38
Ground-ball outs .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .11
Fly-ball outs .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . .. ...4
Pop-outs .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .2
3-ball counts .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..5
Pub Date: 5/31/97