MILWAUKEE -- "Start the playoffs. Let's go."
In two sentences, Davey Johnson summarized two weeks of feeling yesterday after the Orioles completed their ambivalent ending to a championship regular season.
By outlasting the Milwaukee Brewers in a sometimes painful 7-6 win before 15,036 at County Stadium, Johnson's club finished 98-64, its most wins since 1983, when a world championship team also came within two victories of 100. Best of all, a sometimes tedious stretch run ended with a 4-2 road trip and at least subtle indications that a 13-16 September was as much smoke as mirror.
Completing a historic wire-to-wire run, the Orioles clinched their first division title in 14 years Wednesday in Toronto and officially removed the chance of an asterisk marring their title with Saturday night's ninth-inning rally. However, they sometimes seemed a bored, uninterested bunch for much of the last three weeks and finished only two games ahead of the New York Yankees.
The Orioles led the Yankees by as many as 9 1/2 games as recently as Sept. 6.
"Anyone who watched this club all season could see we were playing guys in different situations at different times to get ready," said closer Randy Myers, who watched Terry Mathews gain yesterday's save with a scoreless ninth. "This [month's record] meant nothing. Could we have won 105 games by playing everybody everyday for nine innings? Probably. Would it have helped us get where we want to be in the next few weeks? Probably not."
Others, including starting pitcher Jimmy Key, took a more sober approach: "We need to play like we did in the first half. Otherwise, we're going to be reading about it after the first round."
"You're going to see a different team in Seattle," hitting coach Rick Down said. "The people who have been following us the past three weeks or so are going to have trouble drawing the proper conclusions. This ballclub hasn't showed its true nature for a number of reasons. When we get in that setting, rest assured it will."
The Orioles pounded home the point with 10 hits, seven for extra bases, against six Brewers pitchers. They built a 6-1 lead, lost it, then recovered for the winning run when Mark Davis hit Brady Anderson with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.
Despite Key giving another red-flag performance -- nine hits, three walks and five earned runs in five innings -- there was enough good news from the lineup to overwhelm any negatives.
Yesterday's win left the Orioles only 10-13 since Sept. 7. It also gave them consecutive wins for only the second time since Sept. 6. As Johnson summarized: "Going to Seattle beats the heck out of going home."
Johnson featured a lineup that will likely resemble Wednesday's in Game 1 of the Division Series. Jerome Walton started at first base, with Jeffrey Hammonds in left field, Eric Davis in right and Jeff Reboulet at second base.
Afterward, the club shed all but 28 players for its plane ride to Seattle. There, Johnson likely will set his 25-man playoff roster tomorrow.
He was encouraged by what he saw the past two days. Walton had the best offensive day of his nine-year career yesterday with two two-run homers. Davis followed a home run Saturday with another two hits and a stolen base. He is 9-for-30 (.300) since returning from the disabled list Sept. 15. Hammonds blasted a fourth-inning home run to break an 0-for-20 slump.
"This was big for me, especially because of where I came from," said Walton, who missed four months with various hamstring and groin problems that necessitated three surgeries.
Still, the Orioles left Milwaukee still waiting on Key and third baseman Cal Ripken.
Ripken left the game after 3 1/2 innings. He doubled past Brewers third baseman Jeff Cirillo to lead off the second inning, then scored on Walton's first home run. Ripken insists his stroke is returning, but enters the postseason batting .164 (18-for-110) in his past 32 games. His last home run came Sept. 7; his last multi-hit game was Sept. 5.
The Orioles were 55-30 at the All-Star break, 43-34 afterward. With Key's no-decision yesterday, the Big Three of Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Key went 19-21 in the second half after compiling a 28-4 mark in the first half.
Key's second-half slide only deepened in the fifth inning when Brewers right fielder Jeromy Burnitz continued his season-long assault on Orioles pitching.
Not only did Burnitz keep Key from his second quality start in his past six appearances, he destroyed a proud piece of his resume. With two outs, Burnitz hit a grand slam to pull the Brewers within 6-5. The slam was the first allowed by Key in his 14-year major-league career, a span of 2,512 innings. Key's string had been the longest of active major-league pitchers.
The inning reached Burnitz only after No. 9 hitter Matt Matheny had a leadoff single, Mark Loretta singled with one out and Julio Franco walked to load the bases with two outs. Burnitz then unloaded on Key's first pitch.
Key is scheduled to start Saturday's Game 3 at Camden Yards. At 16-10, he enters the postseason having cleared six innings in only three of his last nine starts. He pitched at least six innings in 21 of his first 25 starts.
L Key pitched 212 1/3 innings this season -- his most since 1993.
While the Orioles minimize a hamstring strain that has bothered him for much of the second half, Key's declining efficiency screams trouble. He needed 102 pitches in five innings yesterday, extending a two-month trend in which he has averaged 21.1 pitches per inning. In the season's first two months, when he started 9-2, Key averaged only 16.4 pitches per inning.
"In the first half, I was always able to make the pitch when I had to," said Key, who insisted he is not fatigued. "Lately, I've had trouble making that pitch and staying away from the big inning. ** That's been the biggest difference. I need to get back to where I was."
1% He spoke for an entire clubhouse.
Pub Date: 9/29/97