The Cleveland Indians didn't see right-hander Scott Erickson all summer. After last night, they'd probably rather not see him again.
Pounding the Indians for eight innings in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, the Orioles' pitching "Terminator" again put his team in its coveted position as front-runner.
With a suffocating 3-0 win at Camden Yards, the Orioles still haven't experienced the sensation of looking up this season, having led wire-to-wire in the AL East and then dominating the Seattle Mariners in the Division Series last week.
Backed by early home runs from Brady Anderson and Roberto Alomar, Erickson needed only 90 pitches to cover eight innings. He allowed four hits, walked none and struck out three while his defense rallied around him.
The three-time AL Central champions pushed only one runner past first base. The Orioles led on their first swing against Indians starter Chad Ogea. And suddenly, a team considered limp in September is playing as if it were April and May all over again.
The game ended with Randy Myers striking out two in a perfect ninth inning. Anderson played a near-perfect game, too, snatching a home run from over the wall against Manny Ramirez to end the first inning, then putting the Orioles ahead with a leadoff homer in the bottom half.
The Indians were the only AL team Erickson didn't face this season. Consecutive September doubleheaders gave them their pass. Perhaps the Indians were still thinking of last year's stubborn power pitcher who tried to bull his way out of trouble and often collapsed when pressured.
"The way he threw the ball tonight I don't think that [that the Indians hadn't seen him] made any difference," Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said. "He didn't break out any surprise pitches. He didn't throw the ball with his left hand. Good pitching will beat good hitting."
Exceptional pitching makes it look easy. Pitching on three days' rest, Ogea was good, allowing three runs and nine base runners in six innings. But Erickson threw on another level.
"Chad pitched a great game. So did Scott. The only difference was we scored for him," Alomar said.
The Orioles have reverted to their pitching form of the season's first four months. In five playoff games they have allowed only 11 runs and 33 hits in 45 innings, compiling a 2.20 ERA. They own 47 strikeouts against seven walks.
Hargrove took the series' first gamble by starting Ogea on three days' rest rather than the well-rested Charles Nagy. Ogea, a location specialist who often troubles the Orioles, stifled them with a 2.25 ERA in three starts this season but was being asked to appear on three days' rest for only the second time this year.
Ogea entered last night 2-0 with an 0.50 ERA in his last three starts, including a Sept. 15 appearance in which he no-hit the Orioles for six innings. Ogea's first outing against them came May 23 when he became the first pitcher in 44 games to beat the Orioles with a complete-game win.
The Indians never sent more than four hitters to the plate in any inning. Of their four base runners, two were snuffed on double plays, including an eighth-inning grounder to Erickson that shortstop Mike Bordick received in full stride, cutting in front of Alomar to nail Roberto's brother, Sandy, at first base.
Erickson is at his best when he forgets about bagging strikeouts and trusts his 93-mph sinker. Last night he complicated the Indians' task by mixing in more breaking pitches earlier in the count. Of his 90 pitches, 63 were strikes. Twice the Indians put their leadoff hitter on; twice he was immediately erased on a double play.
Ever since they rubbed out the New York Yankees on Monday night, the Indians have tried to distance themselves from last year's four-game upset loss to the Orioles in the Division Series. Last night brought it all back. Worse for the Indians, Erickson will return on three days' rest to start Sunday's Game 4.
"We're a different team. They're a different team," said Indians first baseman Jim Thome. "We knew coming in it would be a tough series. We knew we had to get to their starting pitching. He didn't give us a chance and we ended up on the wrong end."
Erickson followed much the same pattern as he did against the Mariners last week. He got ahead with breaking pitches, then kept the Indians on the defensive.
"Scotty pitched pretty much the same way he did in Seattle. He worked both sides of the plate. He threw a few changeups in certain counts. Lenny [Webster, catcher] did a great job of moving in and out," said Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller.
"Scotty's in the process of learning how to take a little off nTC sometimes. When that happens, God knows how far he'll go.
"He's about as good as anyone in baseball."
Added manager Davey Johnson: "He threw a lot more breaking balls, especially at the outset of the game. It set the tempo. He gets so pumped he'll try to throw the fastball through the wall. If he's throwing the breaking ball over, I don't know anyone that would want to hit off him."
Erickson is a workaholic. He prefers to throw twice between starts but eventually shelved the practice in July at Miller's insistence. Erickson has become much more confident working both sides of the plate and no longer falls into patterns. Last night's only constant was his ability to get ahead and to use his defense.
"It was an exceptional night, a big boost. We needed that kind of performance," said Webster, who has caught all but one of Erickson's starts this season. "We got the first pitch in and that's what we do -- work fast and get ahead. He got in a rhythm, and when he does that, he's hard to beat."
The Orioles need Erickson to resemble the pitching monster who helped carry them to an overwhelming first half of the season. Johnson is contemplating using him three times if the series extends to seven games.
Few within a crowd of 49,029, meanwhile, could have guessed that Anderson had virtually determined the game's outcome on consecutive pitches in the first inning. With two outs, he climbed the center-field wall to strip Manny Ramirez of a home run. Anderson then grabbed a bat, moved into Ogea's first pitch and crashed a leadoff home run over the right-field scoreboard for a 1-0 lead.
"I doubt that's happened, taking a home run away and then hitting one on the next pitch. It's pretty rare, at least for me," wisecracked Anderson, who has four extra-base hits in five postseason games.
Anderson has focused himself on these three weeks. At his request, even negotiations with owner Peter Angelos over a new contract have been pushed back until after the postseason.
As for raising his intensity for this situation, Anderson said, "I don't try to. During the season each game is the most important game of my life. I just look at it like that. I don't try to coast during the season, then all of a sudden get intense during the postseason."
The Orioles came back for two more runs in the third inning. Again Anderson was a factor, sending a double inside the left-field line. Then Alomar unloaded on a 3-1 offering, lifting it almost to the identical spot where Anderson had homered two innings before.
The home run was Alomar's fifth in his past 24 games after hitting 10 in his first 93.
The Orioles' 3-0 victory last night was their seventh in nine opening games of the AL Championship Series:
Year Opp., Game 1 result, O's pitcher of record, Series result
1969 Minnesota, O's, 4-3 (12 inn.), D. Hall, O's, 3-0
1970 Minnesota, O's, 10-6, D. Hall, O's, 3-0
1971 Oakland, O's, 5-3, D. McNally, O's, 3-0
1973 Oakland, O's, 6-0, J. Palmer, A's, 3-2
1974 Oakland, O's, 6-3, M. Cuellar, A's, 3-1
1979 California, O's, 6-3 (10 inn.), D. Stanhouse, O's, 3-1
1983 Chicago, White Sox, 2-1, S. McGregor, O's, 3-1
1996 N.Y. Yankees, Yankees, 5-4, R. Myers, Yankees, 4-1*
1997 Cleveland, O's, 3-0, S. Erickson
* -- Best of seven; previous series were best of five.
Pub Date: 10/09/97