TORONTO -- Now the Orioles can say it without looking at the standings, their magic number or over their shoulders.
It's over. It's really over.
Dripping from their late-night celebration of a special regular season, for the first time since 1983 they proclaimed themselves American League East champions.
With their 96th win in their 158th game, the Orioles became only the third team in American League history to win a title by leading wire-to-wire when Scott Kamieniecki (10-6) and Rafael Palmeiro conspired to push them to an 9-3 win over the last-place Toronto Blue Jays, who made news of their own earlier the day by firing manager Cito Gaston.
No longer does it matter what the New York Yankees do. The Orioles successfully traded on a 45-19 start, a powerful pitching staff and a veteran poise to guarantee themselves a playoff berth against the Seattle Mariners beginning Wednesday.
The Orioles clinched in encouraging fashion. Down 2-0, they rallied for a five-run sixth inning and a two-run seventh to give Kamieniecki the support he thirsted for the majority of this
season. Palmeiro began the game on the bench but ended it with four RBIs, including a game-tying sacrifice fly and a two-run homer.
The last pitch belonged to closer Randy Myers, who appeared for an uneventful ninth inning. The last catch went to third baseman Cal Ripken, who gloved Benito Santiago's humpback liner at 10: 47 p.m. An omen? Perhaps. Ripken also snared the last out of the 1983 World Series.
Said Myers of closing the clincher: "I didn't think I was going out. The phone rang and they said you're in the game. I thought they got me mixed up with Armando.
"Anyone in our bullpen could've gone out there and pitched. All the other guys deserve it. They happened to pick me and I appreciate it."
Catcher Lenny Webster, a cog in the team's second-half survival, put the Orioles ahead to stay with a one-out double in the seventh.
When done, they lined up on the field and shook hands. Nothing was noticeably different from the wins that had put them in this position.
The Oriole Way.
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.
The Orioles, who average five runs per game, have scored four runs or fewer in 10 of Kamieniecki's past 16 starts.
This time they 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. The Expos released him after he had compiled a 9.79 ERA in 33 games.
Starting apparently agrees with him more. He struck out six in the first three innings and twice escaped first-and-second jams with one out. In the third, a two-out walk to Geronimo Berroa loaded the bases for Cal Ripken, who hit into a fielder's choice to end the threat.
Kamieniecki benefited from his own wildness in the first inning. With two outs, he unleashed a wild pitch with leadoff hitter Shannon Stewart at third base. But the pitch was so wild it caromed off the backstop and rebounded to Webster several feet behind the plate. He made the tag on Stewart with little problem.
The Blue Jays broke on top 2-0 in the fourth inning when rookie left fielder Jose Cruz Jr. hit a two-out, opposite-field home run with Carlos Delgado on base. Kamieniecki had allowed only one hit until Delgado reached on a two-out double.
After being held scoreless for 14 consecutive innings, the Orioles used four hits, a crucial error and a wild pitch for five runs. It was the kind of breakout the Orioles have needed for the past several weeks but rarely received.
Berroa began the rally with a leadoff double. Ripken followed with a routine grounder to short that Alex Gonzalez fumbled and grabbed at, then hustled a throw wide of the bag. The extra out would be worth two runs. B. J. Surhoff then ripped a double into the right-field corner, scoring Berroa.
Johnson had planned to give Palmeiro the night off but then hustled him into the game when interim Blue Jays manager Mel " Queen summoned right-hander Tim Crabtree in relief of Daal. Palmeiro responded with a sacrifice fly to bring the Orioles within a run. Webster followed with an opposite-field double inside the right-field line to score Surhoff for the go-ahead run.
Webster advanced to third on an out then scored when Crabtree walked Brady Anderson on 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.
Palmeiro reappeared in the seventh inning to give Kamieniecki a 7-2 lead when he homered to right field off Bill Risley with Surhoff on base. Palmeiro has hit five home runs in his past 13 games and needs only one more in the last four games for his third consecutive 39-homer season.
By game's end, most of the SkyDome crowd of 27,443 had left. Like the Orioles' death grip on the division, some conclusions were inescapable.
Pub Date: 9/25/97