Burned inside, Roberto Alomar spun away from the sound of strike three, dancing on feet that should have helped take his team further into the postseason.
It ended quickly and quietly. The Cleveland Indians, considered almost illegitimates when the playoffs began, closed out the American League Championship Series yesterday by beating the Orioles, 1-0, in 11 innings in Game 6. The Orioles walked away slowly from a stunned Camden Yards crowd, already showing bruises that will be slow to heal.
Fill-in second baseman Tony Fernandez delivered the game-breaker, a two-out home run off star-crossed reliever Armando Benitez. It represented punishment for the Orioles' 0-for-12 dive with men in scoring position and their continued refusal to support starting pitcher Mike Mussina.
And in exchange for a league-high 98 regular-season wins, a wire-to-wire AL East title and a takedown of the league's most intimidating team in the Division Series, the Orioles were sent away to think about what they had lost.
"It's disappointing when you don't get what you set out to get," said third baseman Cal Ripken, who finished the ALCS with a .348 batting average and was flawless defensively. "We made things happen, but we didn't get the hit to win the ballgame.
"Cleveland did what it took to win. They executed well, they pitched well and the ball bounced their way a few times. I don't really feel bad, but I'm still disappointed. We don't get to move on."
Heading to their second World Series in three years, the Indians made the most of their chances. They hit just .193 but won one game after a blown checked-swing call extended a turnaround inning, another on a botched squeeze play, and yesterday's when held to three hits in 11 innings. Bad luck even became their good luck.
Bip Roberts was supposed to bat leadoff and start at second base yesterday, but Fernandez, of all people, lined a batting-practice pitch off Roberts' thumb less than an hour before first pitch. Forced to rearrange his lineup, Indians manager Mike Hargrove inserted Fernandez as his No. 2 hitter.
"I knew when Bip got hurt there was some reason I was going to be in the game," Fernandez said. "Now I know why."
The Orioles had considered Fernandez as a utility infielder last winter but reconsidered when they couldn't guarantee him the 350 plate appearances he desired.
So Benitez, dominant all season but hittable in the past week, became the series' tragic figure, throwing a decisive home run pitch for the second time in four losses.
The homer, on a poorly placed slider, was the switch-hitting Fernandez's first of his 38-game postseason career.
For the Orioles, it was never meant to be. They needed only four more outs to take a 2-0 series lead but were undone when series MVP Marquis Grissom reached Benitez for a three-run homer in the eighth inning last Thursday.
"That kind of changed the momentum of the series," said general manager Pat Gillick. "It kind of took awhile to get it back."
The Orioles were undone by two season-long strengths: the bullpen and an ability to win late. Three times the Indians scored in their last at-bat.
"I'll think about it for quite a while. This is a tough loss. This whole series I don't think we caught many breaks," said manager Davey Johnson.
Johnson left the clubhouse after meeting with Ripken, Gillick and several other club officials. He offered only, "No comment. No comment," when asked about his status for next season.
Still, Johnson hung around long enough to concede nothing to the Indians, who won all four games by one run after finishing the season with 12 fewer wins than his club, and the fewest of the four AL playoff teams.
"We were the best team in the American League, just like we were the best team in '69 when the Mets beat us," Johnson said. "But they played us tough. It was a real close series, and we wish them the best."
Yesterday, the Orioles began the first four innings by placing their leadoff hitter on base, but they couldn't push a runner to third base with fewer than two outs.
If Mussina was brilliant, Indians starter Charles Nagy was blessed. He opened the game with a 29-pitch first inning that included two walks and a double, but the Orioles got nothing.
He allowed six of the first 11 hitters he faced to reach base.
He threw three balls to four of the Orioles' first seven batters but was helped by six of the next seven hitters swinging at the first pitch.
And three times in the first five innings, he retired first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to end a potential rally.
Palmeiro will be remembered as the Orioles' offensive fail point for the series. After finishing the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners as one of only two position players to play and not gain an RBI, he staggered through the ALCS, demoted to No. 5 in the order against right-handed pitching, and frustrated by pivotal situations. Yesterday's early-inning brownout topped them all.
Few hitters carry a more pronounced swagger when on a tear than Palmeiro, but none walks more heavily when slumping. He appeared to give away a fifth-inning at-bat before stepping in and grounding harmlessly to first base with runners on first and ++ second.
Palmeiro drove in only two runs during the series and went 1-for-10 with men in scoring position.
Yesterday, the Orioles stranded eight runners in the first five innings. They left 11 before the Indians managed their fourth base runner.
Palmeiro's season finally ended badly. After being hit by a pitch in the eighth inning, Johnson sent in Jeffrey Hammonds to pinch run. Palmeiro was shocked, pointing at himself repeatedly before reluctantly giving up the base.
"It didn't work out, man. It didn't work out. What can I say?" Palmeiro said.
Palmeiro was blameless in the Orioles' most grievous waste, a seventh inning in which Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson led off with singles, only to see a questionable tactical move and the Orioles' second double play wipe out the threat.
Johnson ordered a sacrifice by Alomar. He squared on the first pitch but took a ball. Indians third baseman Matt Williams ordered a "wheel play" in which the third baseman charges and the shortstop covers third, leaving second base unguarded.
Rather than give Alomar a swing, Johnson kept the play on. When Alomar bunted toward third base, Williams fielded, turned and threw to Vizquel covering for the force on Bordick.
The rest seemed almost inevitable. Up next, Berroa grounded the first pitch to Williams, who routinely began a 5-4-3 double play. Nagy left the mound with a nine-hit shutout intact.
Mussina was left to set postseason records for strikeouts and unrewarded brilliance.
He received no decision in Saturday afternoon's 2-1, 12-inning loss in Cleveland. All he did was strike out 15 in seven innings, allowing three hits and one run.
Yesterday, pitching on three days' rest, he allowed one hit in eight innings, struck out 10 and walked two.
Mussina shattered the League Championship Series record for strikeouts with 25, five more than Dwight Gooden in 1988. His 15 strikeouts in Cleveland set an LCS record tied by Florida's Livan Hernandez the next day.
Mussina left the ALCS having allowed four hits and four walks against 25 strikeouts in 15 innings. By comparison, the rest of the Orioles' staff struck out 37 in 43 innings.
"I didn't have any personal disappointment," Mussina said. "I'm disappointed we didn't win. We had a chance to win five of six games. It's the same thing I said in Cleveland. You don't get extra bonus points for doing all right personally. You win or you lose. We lost."
But now, Mussina will be perceived in a brighter light, even brighter than when he came within two outs of a perfect game against the Indians in May. In four postseason starts, Mussina put together a 1.24 ERA, 41 strikeouts and seven walks in 29 innings. No pitcher has struck out more in a postseason.
"The next person who questions Mike Mussina's ability to pitch in big games is going to have to fight me," said pitching coach Ray Miller.
Hargrove said: "I don't know if we played in a game this season in which we were dominated by a pitcher like Mike Mussina. He was absolutely dominating pitching on three days' rest."
The Orioles lost, 1-0, yesterday on Tony Fernandez's 11th-inning homer, but the seeds of defeat were planted throughout the game with the team's horrible production with runners in scoring position:
Inn. .. ..Situation .. .. .. .Outs .Result
.. ...Man on 2nd .. .. .. ..2 ..Palmeiro struck out swinging
2nd .. ...Men on 2nd and 3rd ...2 ..Anderson grounded to first
3rd .. ...Man on 2nd .. .. .. ..1 ..Baines grounded to second
.. .. .. .Man on 3rd .. .. .. ..2 ..Palmeiro popped to third
4th .. ...Man on 2nd .. .. .. ..0 ..Surhoff popped to shortstop
.. .. .. .Man on 2nd .. .. .. ..1 ..Hoiles grounded to third
.. .. .. .Man on 2nd .. .. .. ..2 ..Bordick flied to center
5th .. ...Men on 1st and 2nd ...2 ..Palmeiro grounded to pitcher
7th .. ...Men on 1st and 2nd ...0 ..Alomar bunted into fielder's
. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .choice
.. .. .. .Men on 1st and 2nd ...1 ..Berroa grounded into double play
8th .. ...Man on 2nd .. .. .. ..1 ..Ripken walked
.. .. .. .Men on 1st and 2nd ...1 ..Surhoff grounded into fielder's
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. choice
.. .. .. .Men on 1st and 3rd ...2 ..Hoiles grounded into fielder's
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. choice
Pub Date: 10/17/97