The Orioles and Cleveland Indians return to Camden Yards this afternoon just in time for a little shadow ball.
It's officially called Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, a setting that finds the Orioles trailing the AL Central champions 3-2 while trying to become the ninth team ever to rally from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven postseason series. But unofficially, this afternoon's 4: 15 start offers the possibility for the same surreal setting that defanged hitters on both sides during Saturday's Game 3 at Jacobs Field.
"The people that set the times don't play," says Orioles right fielder Eric Davis. "They don't know what it's like to be in the shadows and not be able to see the ball. Hopefully, it'll be overcast and the sun won't be a factor. It's a tough situation when you're facing major-league pitchers of the caliber that they have."
The setting produced history in Cleveland. With Mike Mussina paired against Orel Hershiser, the two teams combined for an LCS record 33 strikeouts. Mussina finished with 15 strikeouts in seven innings, tying him for the second-most strikeouts in a postseason game.
Had he pitched nine innings, he may well have cleared Bob Gibson's standard of 17 set in 1968. Orioles pitching got 21 of its 34 outs via strikeout. Hershiser struck out six in the first three innings, as Orioles hitters swung at ghosts.
Today's forecast may intercede. Overcast skies are predicted, and rain is possible this afternoon. Otherwise, hitters can expect little chance early in the game.
The Orioles would prefer to put history on hold for another day with Mussina going against Indians starter Charles Nagy. A loss pushes them into an early winter followed by unfulfilled promise.
"We feel very good about our chances," says Orioles left fielder B. J. Surhoff. "The biggest thing right now is that we've got to worry about Game 6. If we get to Game 7, anything can happen. We would love to get into that one-game situation where's it for all the marbles."
To do so, Mussina must again come up big while his lineup does more with opportunities. In three postseason starts, Mussina is 2-0 with a 1.71 ERA. He has allowed four earned runs on three bases-empty homers and a lost fly ball.
"I really wanted to have Mike pitch one more time," says Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson. "As great as he's been in the postseason, you really feel good about your chances."
The Orioles strongly believe they could have won all five games if not for freakish plays involving an apparently blown checked-swing call, a missed squeeze bunt and a wild pitch resulting in two runs. They've held the Indians to a .216 batting average while surrendering only a postseason .145 average with runners in scoring position.
"When you have your No. 1 and 2 lined up, no matter what the situation, you feel pretty good about it," says Orioles pitching coach Ray Miller. "This club's been pretty resilient; we've responded well to tough situations, and I'm hoping for that to continue.
"We had 24 hours to sit back and think pretty hard" before Game 5, Miller says. "Cleveland has 36 hours to think about this."
The Indians counter with Nagy and would follow with postseason master Hershiser, wet neck and all, if Game 7 is necessary.
Nagy endured a rough ride in Game 2, allowing 10 runners and four earned runs in 5 2/3 choppy innings. Not known as overpowering, he threw 112 pitches before handing off to a bullpen that held the game long enough for Marquis Grissom to hit a game-changing, three-run homer in the eighth inning.
But this is shadow ball, mandated by network television that detests nothing more than a traditional early afternoon playoff game.
Speaking for many, Miller referred to today's game time as "a joke," but he probably won't be seconded during the broadcast.
The Orioles eventually lost Game 3 in 12 innings on Omar Vizquel's abortive squeeze attempt. However, manager Davey Johnson left himself open for critique by failing to play for one run early under brutal conditions with Mussina dominating. Four times in the first five innings, the Orioles put a leadoff hitter on base. Without a bunt put down, four times a rally was snuffed by a double play.
Hitters narrow their zones to specific slivers of the plate rather than depending on their ability to read a pitch out of the pitcher's hand. If a pitcher is coming out of shadows with a hitter in sunlight, that is almost impossible. Miller says a change of direction increases the degree of difficulty. However, Mussina and Hershiser appeared to power their way through the early innings in Cleveland.
"Obviously, when you can't see the ball, the more variety of pitches you throw, the less chance a guy has focusing on one pitch," Miller says.
Most believe the problems at Camden Yards will be lessened by the green, ivy-covered backdrop in center field. Jacobs Field offered a less consistent hitting background with fans crowded more closely to straightaway center. At one point, Grissom asked for a white towel to be removed from a skywalk behind center field.
"I don't think anybody has an edge right now," says Davis, whose ninth-inning home run provided a needed cushion in Monday night's 4-2 win. "Mike struck out 15, and we lost [Game 3]. Scotty [Erickson] didn't pitch well, and we lost [Game 4]. You have to give an edge to the two guys we faced, Nagy and Hershiser. I would have to give the edge to those guys even though we're playing at home, because they have to win one and we have to win two. I really like our chances. And if you ask the Indians, they'd say they really like their chances."
Or putting it in another perspective, Indians catcher Sandy Alomar says: "Pressure is when you don't have enough food to feed the kids."
Like night and day
The three 1997 League Championship Series day games have stood out for their scarcity of runs and abundance of strikeouts:
Date .. .. ..Team .. .. ..R .. ..H .. ...K
10-8 .. .. ..Braves .. ...7 .. .13 .. ...7
.. .. .. .. .Marlins .. ..1 .. ..3 .. ...8
10-11 .. .. .Indians .. ..2 .. ..6 .. ..12
.... .. .. ..Orioles .. ..1 .. ..8 .. ..21
10-12 .. .. .Braves .. ...1 .. ..3 .. ..10
.. .. .. .. .Marlins .. ..2 .. ..5 .. ..15
Average for night games:
Series .. .. ..R .. .. ..H .. .. ..K
NLCS* .. .. .7.5 .. ..15.3 .. ..15.3
ALCS .. .. ..8.2 .. ..16.7 .. ..12.8
Average for day games:
NLCS* .. .. .5.5 .. ..12.0 .. ..20.0
ALCS .. .. ..3.0 .. ..14.0 .. ..33.0
Note: Does not include last night's game
Potential Game 7
O's: Scott Erickson (1-0, 4.26)
Cle.: Orel Hershiser (0-0, 0.00)
Note: All stats for ALCS
Pub Date: 10/15/97