Never mind that reality said Rafael Palmeiro was his team's leader in home runs and RBIs. Perception, his included, insisted that the Orioles first baseman was something akin to an offensive drag on a team newly dependent on pitching.
Last night after a four-month wait, perception changed against the Kansas City Royals.
Taking a giant step out of his team's lengthening shadow, Palmeiro went from offensive question mark to a powerful exclamation point with the Orioles' 7-3 win before 43,750 at Camden Yards. Palmeiro turned a first-pitch fastball from Royals reliever Hector Carrasco into an eighth-inning grand slam to shatter both a 3-3 tie and the nagging belief that he was a passenger instead of an engineer on the Orioles express.
Palmeiro finished with two home runs and five RBIs and continued what is easily his best stretch of the season. The Orioles are ready to get on board.
Palmeiro's 31st homer rescued the Orioles from a blown 3-0 lead on Chili Davis' three-run homer in the seventh. It allowed them to sidestep consecutive losses for the first time since July 17-18. It helped increase their American League East lead to seven games over the New York Yankees. And it extended the confidence of a productive and elegant hitter who at times this year has been weighed down by last season's phenomenal success.
"I came into the season thinking if I did it last year there was no reason I couldn't do it this year," Palmeiro said, referring to a year in which he hit 39 home runs and drove in 142 runs. "But our team had a different look early on. We've evolved into a great pitching team with good defense and an average offense. It wasn't like that last year. Last year we came out and had to out-slug the other team.
"This year, our offense isn't as good but we're a better team overall. Guys are doing little things to win games. You can't expect to do what we did last year every year, but at least you can approach it that way. Why should we take less going in?"
Now Palmeiro appears to be grabbing all he can on the way out. He has 91 RBIs with 33 games left. Last night gave him seven home runs in his past 10 games, 36 RBIs in his past 35 games and two multiple-home run games in the past eight days. Since ending a 2-for-37 tumble, he has hit .344 in his past 17 games. Against the Royals' right-handed-heavy staff, Palmeiro has seven home runs and 14 RBIs in 37 at-bats. Last night confirmed the suspicion he is again ready to give a hazy offense its focus.
"I don't know how long it's been, but he's been swinging the heck out of the bat," said Johnson. "If we're going to pick it up, he's going to do it for us."
Palmeiro gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead in the fifth by homering against Royals starter Kevin Appier. With the shot, Palmeiro became the first player in Orioles history to construct three consecutive 30-home run seasons.
Jim Gentile never did it. Frank Robinson never did it. Boog Powell never did it. Eddie Murray never did it.
Like much else Palmeiro has done here, the achievement passed without fanfare.
The Orioles came back for more in the sixth inning despite giving away an out on a botched steal attempt by Brady Anderson. With two outs, Aaron Ledesma walked and took third on B.J. Surhoff's single. Appier's wild pitch moved Surhoff into scoring position. Right fielder Geronimo Berroa continued an RBI tear by lining a single to left field that scored both runners for a 3-0 lead. Berroa has 13 RBIs in his last 11 games and 31 in his past 38.
At that point the game looked in hand. Orioles starter Scott Erickson was perfect through four innings. Maybe better than perfect.
Erickson held the Royals without a runner through four innings, striking out five and not allowing a ball out of the infield. Not until Dean Palmer popped out to second in the fifth inning did he allow a ball in the air. With two outs in the fifth, his string of perfection ended at his own hand. Larry Sutton dribbled a grounder to the first-base side of the mound. Erickson fielded it, struggled for a grip, then instead of tagging the runner underhanded a high toss off Palmeiro's glove for a throwing error.
Erickson's flirtation with a no-hitter ended quickly in the sixth. Jermaine Dye, who started the Royals' game-winning rally in Tuesday's ninth inning, singled past Mike Bordick's dive over second base.
"When they got the hit in the sixth I didn't know it was their only hit. I just knew Scottie was on," said catcher Lenny Webster.
And then he was off.
The staff leader in wins, Erickson has pitched at least seven innings and allowed no more than three earned runs over his last seven starts. He has won four of them. His last loss was July 12, nine starts ago. Yet last night's performance represented a setback of sorts. When he found himself in trouble, Erickson attempted to throw rather than think his way out of trouble.
Second baseman Jed Hanson led off the seventh with a flare to right field. Shortstop Jay Bell followed with another almost identical to it, giving the Royals four hits in a span of five hitters. With Erickson trying to power his way out of the jam, Davis ruined his shutout and tied the game with one swing, a three-run homer over the scoreboard in right field. It was Davis' fourth home run in 22 at-bats against the Orioles this season, giving him eight RBIs. Davis has homered in four consecutive games, with nine in his past 16.
The seventh inning labored to reach Palmeiro. With two out and Brady Anderson at second base, Surhoff was intentionally walked to bring up right-handed Geronimo Berroa against Carrasco. However, Carrasco botched the strategy by walking Berroa to load the bases.
Rather than have rookie left-hander Jamie Walker face Palmeiro, Royals manager Tony Muser stayed with Carrasco. Disbelieving, Palmeiro waited in the on-deck circle for the pitching change that never came.
"I felt they were going to bring him. It's happened so many times in the past in situations like that. You'd have to ask him why," Palmeiro said.
So Palmeiro thought, why not? He drilled Carrasco's first pitch above the scoreboard in right field, disappeared into the dugout and soon reappeared for a curtain call complete with bow.
Arthur Rhodes (9-3) earned the win with two scoreless innings.
"I'll take what I end up with but I'm not going to be satisfied because I always strive for more," he said. "I know I've struggled. I know I'm better than what I've shown. I've done it so many years in the past that I know I can do better."
Few within the game can match the elegance of Palmeiro's swing. Likewise, few can match him for self-directed criticism. He hit .206 in June and went 20 games without a home run in the season's first five weeks. Technically pure, his lofty production standards have been known to work against him.
"He's going to get down on himself. If he goes O-fer he's going to get down on himself. That's him. That's just Raffy. He was that way last year when he drove in 140. This year he's probably only going to drive in 120," Johnson said.
"He's been a little moody because we haven't needed him. But when we need him, he's usually there. It's kind of a nice situation."
Opponent: Kansas City Royals
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 3: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Royals' Jose Rosado (8-10, 4.41) vs. O's Mike Mussina (13-5, 3.20)
Tickets: 4,500 remain
3 times 30
Rafael Palmeiro hit his 30th and 31st homers last night, making him the fourth Oriole to have at least three 30-homer seasons, and the first to do it in successive years:
Player .. .. .. .. ..Year .. .. ..HRs
Boog Powell .. .. ...1964 .. .. . .39
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1966 .. .. ...34
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1969 .. .. ...37
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1970 .. .. ...35
Frank Robinson .. ...1966 .. .. ...49
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1967 .. .. ...30
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1969 .. .. ...32
Eddie Murray .. .. ..1980 .. .. ...32
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1982 .. .. ...32
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1983 .. .. ...33
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1985 .. .. ...31
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1987 .. .. ...30
Rafael Palmeiro .. ..1995 .. .. .. 39
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1996 .. .. ...39
.. .. .. .. .. .. ...1997 .. .. ...31
Rafael Palmeiro hit the Orioles' sixth grand slam last night. Of those six, four either tied the game or broke a tie:
.. .. ..Batter .. .. ..Opp. .. .. ..In. .. .. Score
4/23 ...Davis .. .. ...Chi. .. .. ...7 .. .. ...9-9
5/4 .. .Alomar .. .. ..Oak. .. .. ...6 .. .. ...8-0
5/6 .. .Ripken .. .. ..Ana. .. .. ...7 .. .. ...8-4
6/30 ...Ripken .. .. ..Phi. .. .. ...3 .. .. ...5-0
8/26 ...Anderson .. ...K.C. .. .. ...4 .. .. ...4-4
8/27 ...Palmeiro .. ...K.C. .. .. ...8 .. .. ...7-3
Note: Score is after the grand slam. Orioles' score listed first.
Pub Date: 8/28/97