TORONTO -- Now the Orioles can say it without looking at the standings, at their magic number or over their shoulders.
It's over. It's really over. And now the real deal begins.
Dripping from their late-night celebration of a special regular season, for the first time since 1983 they proclaimed themselves American League East champions.
The Orioles became the third team in American League history to capture a title by leading wire to wire when No. 4 starter Scott Kamieniecki (10-6) and Rafael Palmeiro conspired to push them to a 9-3 win over the last-place Toronto Blue Jays, who made news of their own earlier in the day by firing manager Cito Gaston.
No longer does it matter what the New York Yankees do. The Orioles, who joined the 1927 Yankees and 1984 Detroit Tigers in the wire-to-wire club, successfully traded on a 45-19 start, a powerful pitching staff and veteran poise to guarantee themselves a berth in the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners beginning Wednesday.
"It's a three-step process for us," said manager Davey Johnson. "We were in the playoffs already, but we wanted the division. We got it. Now we take the next step."
Carried out before a subdued SkyDome crowd of 27,443, the on-field celebration was mild. The only outburst came when outfielder Tony Tarasco wrapped a bear hug around first base coach John Stearns. Otherwise, it just as easily could have been win No. 56 as win No. 96.
"I was a little surprised we didn't get more excited," said Palmeiro, who entered as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning and left with his 38th home run and four RBIs, giving him 110 this season. "But we've known for a while we're in the playoffs. There's still time to get excited."
Much of the post-game bedlam confined itself to the trainer's room, where Johnson and third baseman Cal Ripken sat side-by-side puffing on cigars. Coaches were carried through halls and doused with ice. Music reverberated through a clubhouse sweet with the smell of champagne. But those present during last year's celebration described this one as comparatively mild.
"We've known we were in the playoffs for a week," said center fielder Brady Anderson. "That takes a little edge off."
Said assistant general manager Kevin Malone: "We're enjoying this, but it's short-lived. Tomorrow we'll be focused on our ultimate goal, the world championship."
Said Ripken, the only playing link to the Orioles' last championship in 1983: "There were great expectations on this club based on the kind of success we had last year. In '82, I remember we went to the last day of the season. We came back with essentially the same group of people and were ready to benefit from the experience and go out and establish ourselves early. This club going wire to wire is kind of mind-boggling."
Fittingly, the clinching win was largely built by those who came to spring training with no promises. Two years after arm surgery, Kamieniecki won a career-high 10th game. Backup catcher Lenny Webster drilled a one-out double during a five-run sixth inning to push across the go-ahead run.
"It seems like the battle cry every day is a new hero. Somebody else contributes," Ripken said. "And I think everyone contributed from the first man to the 25th man. That's what it takes."
Webster, a bit player for the 1991 World Series champion Minnesota Twins, was among the most appreciative of last night long-awaited moment.
"I was around in 1991 with the Twins but I feel like I've really contributed to this," he said. "We still have a job to do but I'm going to allow myself to take some satisfaction from this."
For Kamieniecki, this was delayed justice. Two frustrating months of strong but mostly unrewarded performances melted away.
"I was fortunate to be in a situation where the opportunity fell to me," Kamieniecki said. "This is great. It took a while, maybe a little longer than we wanted. But it's here now and that's all that matters."
Kamieniecki may well have been making his final start of the year since Johnson has decided to go with a three-man rotation for the Division Series, putting Kamieniecki in long relief.
If so, the Orioles gave Kamieniecki an appropriate going away present: decent run support. For much of the season Kamieniecki has remained philosophical about the tendency. However, in recent starts the habit has become an irritant. The tough-luck starter has surrendered three runs or fewer in nine of his past 10 starts but earned only three wins in that span.
After being shut out for 12 consecutive innings, the Orioles used four hits, a crucial error and a wild pitch for five runs in the sixth to win consecutive games for the first time since Sept. 5-6. It was the kind of breakout they've needed for the past several weeks but rarely received.
The Orioles struggled early against left-hander Omar Daal (1-1), a Montreal Expos castoff who shut out the Yankees for six innings in his last start.
Johnson hoped to rest Palmeiro but instead hustled him into the game when interim Blue Jays manager Mel Queen summoned right-hander Tim Crabtree in relief. Palmeiro responded with a sacrifice fly to tie the game. Webster followed with a double inside the right-field line to score B. J. Surhoff for the go-ahead run. Webster advanced to third on an out, then scored when Crabtree walked Anderson with a pitch to the backstop.
From there, the Blue Jays collapsed completely. A prep crew began to set the visitors' clubhouse for a soaking celebration.
O's vs. Mariners
1% AL Division Series (Best of five)
Date, Site, Time, TV
Wed., Seattle, 8:07, 11
10/2, Seattle, 4:07, #13
10/4, Orioles, 4:07, 45
10/5, Orioles*, TBA, TBA
10/6, Orioles*, TBA, TBA
# -- also ESPN; *-- if necessary
AL East champs
The Orioles won their eighth AL East Division title last night -- the most since divisional play began in 1969, but their first since 1983. A look at the teams who have won the division:
Team .......... Titles .......... Last title
Orioles ....... 8 ............... 1997
New York ...... 6 ............... 1996
Boston ........ 5 ............... 1995
Toronto ....... 5 ............... 1993
Detroit ....... 3 ............... 1987
Milwaukee ..... 1 ............... 1982
Notes: Cleveland never won the division. Cleveland and Milwaukee were moved to the AL Central in 1994. There was no division titlist in 1994 because of the players' strike.
Pub Date: 9/25/97