Another bitter October loss puts Johnson at risk again


CLEVELAND -- They're going down, and they're going down ugly. And if Scott Kamieniecki doesn't win tonight, manager Davey Johnson's job might not be so safe after all.

Losing in the American League Championship Series is no disgrace. But losing this way -- losing with embarrassing misplays, losing to the inferior Cleveland Indians -- is surely going to rankle owner Peter Angelos.

A week ago, Angelos said that Johnson would return for the final year of his contract, presuming he wanted to stay. But faced with another bitter October disappointment, an owner as emotional as Angelos could change his mind.

"I don't worry about that," Johnson said when asked about the future after the Orioles' 8-7 loss to Cleveland last night in Game 4 of the ALCS. "I'm worried about winning ballgames."

The belief here is that the Orioles will not find a better manager than Johnson if they fire him. But Angelos can find plenty of fodder in this series, if he is willing to pay Johnson $750,000 not to manage in 1998.

Johnson had a terrific Division Series against Seattle, but now he has left himself open to second-guessing, both in his words and deeds. If nothing else, Angelos probably will make him twist, for nary an October passes without his tormenting or firing his manager.

His personality conflict with Johnson dates to a series of disputes at the end of last season, most involving his handling of players. The tension resurfaced this season when Johnson failed to consult Angelos over a seemingly minor issue, a $10,500 fine to Roberto Alomar for missing an exhibition game.

It shouldn't have come to this. And maybe it still won't, if Kamieniecki can win tonight, enabling the Orioles to return to Baltimore with Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson pitching games 6 and 7 on three days' rest, if necessary.

The Orioles have lost three straight one-run games, and now they need to win three straight to win the series. It's not out of the question. But only three clubs have recovered from a three-games-to-one deficit since the LCS went to a best-of-seven format in 1985.

How much of this is Johnson's fault?

You can't blame him for Lenny Webster's falling apart. You can't blame him for Rafael Palmeiro's playing most of the postseason in a funk. You can't blame him for Armando Benitez's unraveling or Scott Erickson's imploding last night.

Above all, you can't blame him for the physical ailments of Eric Davis, Roberto Alomar and even Brady Anderson, which have robbed the Orioles of their team speed.

Still, he must bear partial responsibility for the way the Orioles again have reverted to an all-or-nothing offense in the ALCS, scoring nine of their 15 runs on homers.

And as much as Johnson has talked, both before the series and even before last night's game, you'd think that maybe his team could have backed up his strong words.

Johnson said before the series that he wasn't going to carry 11 pitchers, explaining that any team that needs more than 10 in a short series probably won't win.

Well, the Indians are carrying 11 pitchers.

And No. 11, left-hander Brian Anderson, has pitched 5 1/3 innings in this series, allowing only one earned run.

The Indians' bullpen, in fact, has outpitched the Orioles' bullpen, not that Johnson sounded too impressed before last night's game.

"I've been more surprised at the way we've swung at Indians' pitching," Johnson said. "I've seen some hanging curveballs that we'd normally waffle. They have a good bullpen, but they're not all great out there."

Maybe not, but the Indians' relievers have allowed only three runs in their 16 1/3 innings in this series. The Orioles' relievers, meanwhile, have suffered three straight defeats.

Johnson is effectively down to nine pitchers, because he's afraid to use Terry Mathews -- and maybe eight, considering his reluctance to start Jimmy Key. He also said before last night's game that he was "leery" of using Arthur Rhodes.

Well, Rhodes was his first reliever out of the bullpen, and Johnson said he threw better than he did in Game 3, working 1 1/3 scoreless innings despite a tender elbow.

Indeed, Johnson said that if Benitez could have retired Sandy Alomar to escape the ninth, the Orioles would have been in better position than the Indians to win in extra innings.

The way Johnson figured it, Benitez could have worked another inning, and Randy Myers was available to close. The Indians, meanwhile, were down to Eric Plunk and Alvin Morman.

Sounds reasonable enough.

But Benitez didn't escape, did he?

No, and the offense produced only two runs after its three-homer eruption in the third inning, leaving the bullpen with little margin for error.

The Orioles were one-dimensional against the Yankees in last year's ALCS. And they've been largely one-dimensional against the Indians.

Four straight innings they put the leadoff man on base in Game 3, and not once did they bunt. Johnson had his reasons -- he didn't have decent bunters or fast runners, and he preferred to put men in motion against Orel Hershiser.

But in a low-scoring game, the Orioles looked foolish for not even attempting a sacrifice, especially when all four runners were erased by double plays.

So now, they could be down to their final game of 1997.

Johnson doesn't deserve to be fired.

But if his team doesn't bounce back, no one can predict what Angelos might do.

"If we go out of here with a win, we go back to our place and things can happen," Johnson said. "I've seen stranger things happen. I've been two runs down and down to my last strike and won a ballgame, so don't tell me about fate taking over. We've got a ways to go yet."

He needs to turn it around.

Both for his team's sake, and his own.

Digging out


Comebacks from 1-3 deficits in the postseason:

World Series

x-1903 Bos. (AL) 5, Pitt. (NL) 3

1925 Pitt. (NL) 4, Wash. (AL) 3

1958 N.Y. (AL) 4, Milw. (NL) 3

1968 Det. (AL) 4, St.L. (NL) 3

1979 Pitt. (NL) 4, Orioles (AL) 3

1985 K.C. (AL) 4, St.L. (NL) 3


1985 Kansas City 4, Toronto 3

1986 Boston 4, California 3


1996 Atlanta 4, St. Louis 3

x-best-of-9 series

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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