He finished in the brilliant afterglow of Baltimore's most powerful baseball moment since Cal Ripken set his iron man standard two Septembers ago. Considered an iffy postseason pitcher a week ago, Mussina and a flawless bullpen grabbed onto home runs by Jeff Reboulet and Geronimo Berroa along with Ripken's RBI single, cradled them, and walked away with a two-hit, 3-1 win to clinch the American League Division Series by the same 3-1 margin.
"I think it would only be fitting we eliminate the Yankees," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "The record shows they're the second-best ballclub in the AL this year. If Cleveland doesn't do it, it's going to be left up to us. And I'm up for it."
And the Orioles are again on a roll. At exactly 6: 49 p.m., first baseman Rafael Palmeiro caught Mike Bordick's chest-high throw. Closer Randy Myers, who got Jay Buhner to ground into the final out, punched the sky.
And the Orioles, momentarily relieved of the pressure that followed them into the postseason, rushed from their dugout to celebrate the first clinching of a postseason series at home since 1970.
The manager lagged behind, raised his fists and blew a kiss to his wife, Susan.
Roberto Alomar hugged Ripken, who helped carry his team on a back that only weeks before had told him not to play.
The team that only exchanged a businessman's handshake after clinching its division chose to embrace, urged on by an appreciative crowd of 48,766 that witnessed the improbable.
For the fifth time this season the Orioles won when facing the game's most intimidating pitcher. The rest of the league did so only four times. For the fourth time the Orioles left Johnson with a loss. For the third time, Mussina took the win despite being ranked the underdog.
"I think other people -- because of the tension surrounding a playoff series and the matchup with Randy Johnson -- gave them the edge," said center fielder Brady Anderson. "It's mind-boggling to me because he [Mussina] has got the best winning percentage among active pitchers. It's not that important how other people perceive him. He's a pure winning pitcher."
The Orioles won just as they had most of the season, with solid starting pitching backed by seamless defense and an overpowering bullpen. They held baseball's best lineup to 11 runs and a .218 average while striking out 42 against only seven walks, an unfathomable ratio indicative of the staff's refusal to give in to any hitter.
In the Orioles' three wins, the Mariners placed only five of 27 leadoff hitters on base. Only one of their runs began as a walk. The Orioles scored nine runs that began with a pass.
They worked Johnson over for two first-inning runs despite shadows that ran between the pitching mound and the plate.
Reboulet homered on a fastball, his second home run of the season against the 6-foot-10 left-hander. Berroa doubled on a slider. Ripken singled on time.
Said Ripken, in the midst of a long-awaited offensive revival: "Anytime you face Randy Johnson, the best thing you can say is, 'Stay close.' If you can score first, it gives you a little bit of an edge early. When you score first, it gives you a chance to hang in there a little bit longer."
"It's not the regular season, but you do the best you can to treat it like it's a baseball game," Mussina said. "They're shooting off fireworks and the crowd's cheering all the time. But you still treat it like it's a baseball game."
If he wasn't perceived as a big-game pitcher before, he is now. Refusing to budge, his only runs allowed in the series came on three bases-empty home runs.
"Not taking anything away from what Randy did. But he was simply overshadowed by the way Mike Mussina pitched," said shortstop Alex Rodriguez, one of only three Mariners regulars to hit better than .250 for the series. "He went out there and pitched like he was a four- or five-time Cy Young Award winner."
Mussina entered the series advertised as a pitcher winless in big games. He left as its unofficial MVP, having allowed three runs and seven hits while striking out 16 in a claustrophobic span of five days.
"That was better than his first win, if that's possible," said Buhner, referring to Mussina's win in a 9-3 Game 1. "You go up there full of confidence and then you take that quiet 0-fers. He's like a Roger Clemens in his own way."
Mussina served notice with a defining performance. He pitched seven innings, allowing only a second-inning home run to Edgar Martinez and a single to Rob Ducey. He faced only two more than the minimum number of hitters his last five innings.
"He went up there and kept us off the bases," Buhner said. "We just didn't hit as a team. They don't have any one explosive guy. They've just got a lot of great pitchers and a great bullpen."
Mussina twice beat Johnson when a loss in either game would have sent the series to an uncomfortable Game 5. "Whoever gets to play this team is going to have their hands full, whether it's the Indians or the Yankees," Buhner said. "Every ground ball is an out. Their pitchers just completely shut you down and they have a great bullpen."
Of Mussina's effort, his manager said, "I knew I'd get a quality start. He rose to the occasion and pitched a great game."
Johnson set up this moment all season by refusing to have Mussina compile large pitch counts, even at the cost of several wins. His reward was a powerful outing by a pitcher long reluctant to pitch on short rest.
"The first game [last Wednesday] my heart was beating really fast the first inning or so," Mussina said. "Nerves are a big factor. You know what it feels like to be out there. You know what it feels like to have all those people cheering. But the quicker you get back in to your normal feeling the better off you're going to be."
Mariners manager Lou Piniella groused throughout that the Orioles were feeding his hitters a disproportionate number of off-speed pitches. The Mariners, including center fielder Ken Griffey, never fully adjusted.
"We had good advance scouting and I don't think anybody keeps a better [pitching] chart on the opposition than Ray Miller," observed Johnson, who now carries his fourth team to a League Championship Series. "We changed some patterns and we didn't give in at certain times. But more than anything, we threw a lot of strikes and stayed ahead of the hitters. But I think you can credit Ray Miller the most. He told our guys they had a game plan and to stick with it."
The plan was to focus on the two ends of the Mariners' lineup rather than its intimidating middle, according to Miller.
For the series, the top two and bottom two spots in the Mariners batting order were a combined 12-for-63 (.190). Enduring a horrendous series, AL home run leader and presumptive MVP Griffey hit with runners in scoring position only four times.
Piniella, outraged by Johnson's perceived gamesmanship in Game 3, was gracious in defeat. For the second time Sweet Lou watched his more celebrated pitcher be undone by a collection of role players, former castoffs and the occasional regular. Johnson struck out 13 in a heroic complete-game effort. The Big Unit retired 20 of the last 24 hitters he faced and walked only two. Four days after throwing 100 pitches in Game 1, he threw another 137.
"You can't ask him to do any more. We just came up short," Piniella said. "It's exceedingly difficult to go into another man's yard and do something that hasn't been done before," he added, referring to the fact that no team had lost its first two at home and won a best-of-five playoff series.
The series also featured the return of Ripken to prominence. The Orioles third baseman left behind a month-long slump to hit a team-high .438 for the series. Yesterday's first-inning, two-out single followed Reboulet's second home run of the season against Johnson and Berroa's double.
"There's a sense of satisfaction that comes from this. It can't last long right now, but it's real," said Ripken. "You feel good about contributing to a winning effort. It's satisfying. But there are two other steps to be taken."
O's do homework
This is the 10th postseason series the Orioles have clinched, but just the fourth at home. The first three:
Yr. Series .. Opp. .. Gm. .. Score
'66 World ... L.A. ... 4 ... 1-0
'70 ALCS .... Minn. .. 3 ... 6-1
'70 World ... Cin. ... 5 ... 9-3
Orioles in ALCS
How the Orioles have fared in the past in the American League Championship Series:
Yr Opp. Result Pitcher*
'96 NYY L 4-1 Erickson
'83 CHW W 3-1 T. Martinez
'79 Cal. W 3-1 McGregor
'74 Oak. L 3-1 Cuellar
'73 Oak. L 3-2 Alexander
'71 Oak. W 3-0 Palmer
'70 Min. W 3-0 Palmer
'69 Min. W 3-0 Palmer
* Orioles pitcher of record in final game
Pub Date: 10/06/97