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Orioles step into a hole that they dug themselves

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEVELAND -- It's not John Hirschbeck's fault.

Videotape replays indicated that Omar Vizquel never made contact on his attempted suicide-squeeze bunt in the 12th inning last night.

And even if he did, there are at least a dozen other reasons why the Orioles lost Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, 2-1.

The Orioles insist that Vizquel made contact, that they heard a foul tip, that they saw the ball change direction.

But Hirschbeck, the plate umpire, ruled otherwise.

Was this his revenge?

Orioles manager Davey Johnson wouldn't even touch the question.

"I don't even want to think like that," Johnson said. "I don't even want to think that's possible. You can ask me the question. I can't even think that's possible.

"It wasn't Hirschbeck. I thought we didn't get a call the other night [on Jim Thome's checked swing]. That's part of baseball. I would hope he would not let anything affect his judgment on anything like that."

The replay will be shown over and over, and the Orioles will scrutinize it as closely as they did the replay of the Roberto Alomar spitting incident.

They're not going to like what they see.

Closer Randy Myers threw the pitch with runners on first and third and one out in the 12th. Vizquel offered at his 2-1 slider as Marquis Grissom broke from third.

The ball eluded catcher Lenny Webster. Hirschbeck pointed with his left hand to signal a swing, waved his right hand to signal a strike. Grissom scored standing up.

Webster rose in anger, believing it was a foul tip. Johnson raced from the dugout to argue. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro threw up his arms in anger.

Alomar was at second base.

It was just over a year ago that he spit on Hirschbeck in Toronto, triggering a controversy that tainted his sport and changed his ,, image forever.

"Don't ask me," he said. "Don't ask me."

Johnson hadn't seen the replay when he entered the interview room. And he still hadn't seen it later as he sat in his office with hitting coach Rick Down and pitching coach Ray Miller.

"It changed direction," Miller said. "He just ticked it probably. That's all it takes. Lenny will not miss that ball in the air. He will not. He was right on it."

Webster had seen the replay.

And he was just as adamant that it was a foul tip, though the play ultimately was ruled a passed ball.

Whatever, it was the Orioles' biggest misplay at the plate since Jamie Quirk failed to block Gregg Olson's wild pitch the final weekend of the 1989 season.

"I saw contact. I heard contact," Webster said. "In defense of John, it was pretty loud, probably impossible for him to hear. But he definitely tipped the ball and deflected it off my glove."

Vizquel, naturally, said he missed the pitch. "I was ready to kill myself since Marquis would be out at the plate," he said.

And Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, naturally, found himself agreeing with the umpires for the second straight game.

"It was a great call," he said.

Johnson's biggest complaint seemed to be that Hirschbeck didn't ask for help from second base umpire Larry McCoy. But otherwise, he said Hirschbeck gave him a proper hearing.

"I was about ready to go crazy because he made the call and took off, but he did come back and listen to me," Johnson said. "I felt he should get help from the second base umpire. You're not going to hear the tick, although I thought I heard it. Maybe that's wishful hearing."

For argument's sake, let's assume the Orioles are correct in believing that Hirschbeck blew it. Myers still would have been in trouble, with a runner at third and one out.

And there is no guarantee he would have made the same type of escape he did in the 11th when he snuffed a threat after replacing Arthur Rhodes with runners on first and third and none out.

If the Orioles want to know why they lost, they can point to the fly ball that Brady Anderson misjudged in the eighth, leading to the Indians' first run.

They can point to the combined 1-for-19 batting performance by their 3-6 hitters -- Eric Davis, Rafael Palmeiro, B.J. Surhoff and Cal Ripken.

And specifically, they can point to Palmeiro, who went 1-for-5, struck out a career-high four times and has yet to drive in a run in 25 postseason at-bats.

They can blame Hirschbeck for last night, but what about the gift call they got on Sandy Alomar's groundout to end the ninth?

They can blame the umpires for missing Jim Thome's checked swing in Game 2, but what about the three-run homer that Armando Benitez allowed to Grissom?

They're looking for scapegoats, when they should be looking at themselves.

Indeed, they could be leading this series three games to none instead of trailing 2-1.

They could be leading, but now they desperately need a victory tonight with Scott Erickson pitching on three days' rest.

Last night's loss put them in a hole.

Another one tonight would put them in deep trouble.

Their No. 4 starter, Scott Kamieniecki, would be pitching Game 5 to save the season.

And even if he won, Mike Mussina would need to pitch Game 6 on three days' rest coming off his monstrous 15-strikeout, 120-pitch effort last night.

The Indians' pitching also is in questionable shape -- rookie Jaret Wright starts today, and Charles Nagy and Orel Hershiser both would pitch on three days' rest in Games 6 and 7, if necessary.

But the Indians can win this series without returning to Baltimore. And the Orioles are in unfamiliar territory, playing from behind for the first time this season.

"Both teams had chances to win all night," Johnson said. "You just hate to see it end up on one of these deals like this."

Fair enough, but the Orioles can't blame John Hirschbeck.

They should blame only themselves.

Umps and O's

Yesterday wasn't the first time an umpire's call had a major effect on an Orioles postseason game:

1969 World Series, Game 4: The Orioles argued that J.C. Martin ran out of the base line when Pete Richert's throw toward first hit Martin on a bunt in the 10th inning. The Mets went on to win the game, 2-1, and the series, 4-1.

1970 World Series, Game 1: The Reds argued that Orioles catcher Elrod Hendricks didn't tag Bernie Carbo on a play at the plate in the sixth inning of a tie game. Replays showed Hendricks tried to tag with his glove while the ball was in his bare hand, but also that Carbo didn't touch the plate. The Orioles won the game, 4-3, and the series, 4-1.

1996 ALCS, Game 1: The Orioles argued that a fan interfered with Tony Tarasco's attempt to catch Derek Jeter's eighth-inning fly ball, which was ruled a home run. The Yankees won the game in 10 innings, 5-4, and the series, 4-1.

1997 ALCS, Game 2: With two outs in the eighth and a full count on Jim Thome, umpires ruled that Thome checked his swing. The next batter, Marquis Grissom, hit a three-run homer. The Indians won the game, 5-4.

Pub Date: 10/12/97

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