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'97 season in review

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Davis' inspirational comeback

Outfielder Eric Davis endeared himself to Orioles fans in record time with his hard-charging style of play and the catalytic effect he had on the Orioles' offense, but the baseball world was shocked when it was discovered in June that he was suffering from colon cancer.

Surgeon Keith Lillemoe removed a large cancerous mass from Davis' intestinal tract, and doctors recommended a long course of chemotherapy. Davis accepted their advice, but refused to let the often-debilitating treatment program prevent him from returning to help the Orioles clinch the American League East title.

He returned to the starting lineup on Sept. 15 and was a factor in both of the club's postseason series. He had a big two-run single in the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners and a decisive home run in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.

Rocking Randy

Mariners ace Randy Johnson went 20-2 against the rest of baseball this year, but he went into the tank when he faced the Orioles. They won all three games he started during the regular season, and Mike Mussina outpitched him twice in the postseason, including the deciding game of the Division Series.

Johnson, perhaps the most overpowering pitcher of his generation, has a 3-9 career record against the Orioles, including postseason play.

If you could figure out the reason and bottle it, the rest of the American League would beat a path to your door.

Don't shoot, I'm only the manager

Manager Davey Johnson has the highest winning percentage of any active major-league manager, and he has never finished lower than second in any full season he has managed in the big leagues. So why is his job security always an issue?

Johnson said in July that he felt he had to reach the World Series to feel good about his chances of returning for the final year of his three-year contract.

"I signed a three-year contract," he said at the time, "but I've always felt I would have to get it done in two."

He is not a favorite of owner Peter Angelos - and his future with the club appeared to be in jeopardy after he fined Roberto Alomar $10,500 for missing an exhibition game and a team function - but Angelos said last week that there is no reason to think that Johnson will not be back for the 1998 season.

Ripken moves over

Future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken did not immediately embrace the club's decision to move him from shortstop to third base, but he agreed to make the move when the team signed free-agent shortstop Mike Bordick, and it worked out well.

Bordick brought added range to the infield, and Ripken - reluctant or not - finally brought some stability to third base, where the club had been without a front-line veteran presence since the club traded Doug DeCinces after the 1981 season.

The new infield combination took some time to click. Bordick struggled at the plate for much of the season, Ripken was hampered by back problems at his new position and Roberto Alomar was slowed by a string of injuries, but everything fell into place in September, and the infield defense was superb in the postseason.

Cal's back

Ripken became the center of controversy in September, when he lapsed into a deep slump. He had been struggling with back soreness for much of the second half, and there were calls for him to take a seat for the good of the team.

He rebuffed talk of ending his consecutive-games streak and finished the season, then pulled out of his slump and played great defensively in the postseason.

Banged-up Brady

Center fielder Brady Anderson had high hopes of picking up where he left off in 1996, when he became the 14th player in major-league history to hit 50 or more home runs in a season. He never really got the chance.

Anderson cracked a rib diving back into first base during a spring-training game and had to alter his approach at the plate to avoid aggravating the injury. He hit only 18 home runs, but compensated by excelling in a more standard leadoff role. He ranked among the league leaders in on-base percentage for most of the season and finished with a .393 percentage to lead the club. He also led the team in walks (84) and doubles (39) and triples (seven).

Though he also battled leg problems throughout the year, he was one of the Orioles' most productive hitters during the postseason.

The Big Three

The top three pitchers in the Orioles' starting rotation - Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Jimmy Key - got off to an amazing start, going a combined 28-4 while the club was building a big first-half lead. They finished with 47 victories. It was the first time since 1982 that the Orioles had three pitchers with at least 15 victories.

The season ended with Mussina and Erickson going strong, but Key finished on a big downswing. He had won 11 of his first 12 decisions, but went 5-9 the rest of the way and won just one of his final nine regular-season starts at Camden Yards.

He did not pitch particularly well in the postseason either, until he was called upon in relief in Game 5 of the ALCS. That strong, three-inning, no-hit performance would have bought him a Game 1 start in the World Series if the Orioles had gotten that far.

Wire to wire

The Orioles became the third American League team and sixth team overall to spend every day of the regular season in first place. The others were the 1923 New York Giants, the 1927 New York Yankees, the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, the 1984 Detroit Tigers and the 1990 Cincinnati Reds.

They also earned the more dubious distinction of becoming the first team in baseball history to go wire to wire and not play in the World Series.

More than ever

Orioles fans arrived at Camden Yards in droves again. The club drew 3,711,132 fans to lead the league in attendance for the third consecutive year and set a franchise record. The Orioles also played in front of more fans on the road (2,289,096) than any other club in franchise history.

Money matters

The Orioles arrived at spring training with three of the club's most popular players still unsigned beyond the 1997 season. Owner Peter Angelos quickly signed Cal Ripken to a two-year (with an option) contract extension and handed Mike Mussina a three-year extension early in the season, but did not come to terms with center fielder Brady Anderson.

Though negotiations remained amicable throughout the season, Anderson still was unsigned when the Orioles fell out of the playoffs on Wednesday and could test the free-agent market. The club also has to decide whether to offer a multiyear deal to closer Randy Myers and breakthrough starter Scott Kamieniecki.

Moose cuts loose

Mike Mussina not a big-game pitcher? Might want to ask the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians about that. In four pressure-packed starts in the postseason, Mussina established himself as a great clutch pitcher and put his substantial talent on display in front of a national television audience.

He out-dueled Mariners ace Randy Johnson twice and all but rewrote the playoff record book for strikeouts, with 15 in Game 3 of the ALCS and 25 in the series. He gave up just one run on four hits over 15 innings against the Cleveland Indians, but that was one more run than the Orioles scored over that span.

During the regular season, Mussina won 15 games and broke his own club single-season strikeout record with 218.

Beefing up the lineup

General manager Pat Gillick didn't sit on his hands when the Orioles headed into the summer with the best record in the majors. He moved decisively when Eric Davis had cancer surgery and catcher Chris Hoiles suffered a ligament tear in his knee, acquiring outfielder Geronimo Berroa from the Oakland Athletics on June 27.

Gillick didn't stop there. He traded for left-handed DH Harold Baines on July 29 to balance the lineup.

Myers' big season

The season began with everyone assuming that closer Randy Myers would share the late innings with Armando Benitez, but ended with the club scrambling to figure out a way to keep Myers for another season.

The veteran left-hander had one of the best years of his career, converting 45 of 46 save opportunities during the regular season and pitching well in the playoffs. He is eligible for free agency and figures to be in demand, so the club may have to guarantee three years to bring him back.

That appeared to be a long shot a few months ago, but it has become much more plausible since Benitez gave up three game-winning hits in the American League Championship Series.

Taking it slow

The Orioles and New York Yankees seem to take pride in giving their fans the most for their money. They set a major-league record on Sept. 5, when they needed four hours and 22 minutes to complete a nine-inning game at Yankee Stadium. That broke the old record of 4: 21 set by the same two teams on April 30, 1996.

Raffy's references

First baseman Rafael Palmeiro finished the season with 38 home runs to become the first hitter in Orioles history to hit 30 or more home runs in three straight seasons. He also joined Boog Powell as the only Orioles players to have three seasons with 35 or more.

If only the postseason had been so productive. Palmeiro struggled at the plate throughout and drove in just two runs in 37 at-bats in the Division Series and ALCS.

Looking to the future

The Orioles' player development system isn't exactly the envy of the rest of the major leagues, but three of the club's minor-league affiliates won league championships and the Orioles minor-league system had the third-best combined won-lost record in baseball.

The Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, the Single-A Delmarva Shorebirds and the Rookie League Bluefield Orioles won playoffs for their league titles.

Not bad for an organization that was ranked last among the 28 major-league organizations in minor-league depth by Baseball America at the start of the season.

Five moments to remember

1. The clincher: It shouldn't have taken quite so long, but the Orioles assured themselves of being only the third American League team to go wire-to-wire when they clinched the AL East title with a 9-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 24 at SkyDome. Coincidentally, that was the same location where they won the wild card race last year and clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 1983.

The club had a chance to nail it down earlier this year and hold the division title celebration at Camden Yards, but lapsed into a 6-11 slump in September that allowed the second-place Yankees to keep it interesting until the final week of play.

2. Giant killers

The Seattle Mariners were a slight favorite to win the Division Series because they had 20-game winner Randy Johnson set to go twice in the best-of-five series, but the oddsmakers obviously forgot to factor in that the Orioles are the only team in baseball that isn't intimidated by him.

Mike Mussina outdueled him in Game 1 and set off another champagne celebration when he got the upper hand in the decisive Game 4. Mussina, of course, would go on to pitch two phenomenal games in the American League Championship Series, but the Orioles offense would come up empty both times.

3. Eric returns

Outfielder Eric Davis made his inspirational return to the Orioles starting lineup on Sept. 15, three months after doctors removed a large cancerous tumor from his colon.

Davis was not a big offensive factor during the final weeks of the regular season, but he contributed a big two-run single in the Division Series against the Mariners and hit a decisive home run in Game 5 of the ALCS to help force the playoffs back to Camden Yards.

4. Almost perfect

Right-hander Mike Mussina carried a perfect game into the ninth inning on May 30, retiring 25 consecutive Cleveland Indians before Sandy Alomar broke it up with a one-out single.

Mussina's only reaction to the base hit was a wry smile. He returned to the mound and struck out the last two batters to complete his second career one-hitter.

Less then four weeks later, Mussina again flirted with a no-hitter, pitching seven hitless innings before Milwaukee Brewers infielder Jose Valentin broke it up with a leadoff single in the eighth.

5. Braves sweep

The Orioles already had the best record in the American League, but the baseball world didn't really stand up and take notice until they marched into Atlanta and swept a three-game interleague series against the defending National League champion Atlanta Braves.

Left-hander Jimmy Key defeated four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux in the June 13 opener and ran his record to an impressive 11-1. The Orioles won the next two games on the strength of their superior bullpen.

The series was touted as a possible World Series preview, but both teams came up short in the postseason.

Five moments to forget

1. The last game

The Orioles fought hard to bring the American League Championship Series back to Baltimore, but Game 6 was a study in offensive frustration that was unsurpassed by anything else that happened during the course of the year.

Pitching ace Mike Mussina held the Cleveland Indians to one hit through eight innings only to watch the club go 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position and lose, 1-0, on a two-out home run by Tony Fernandez in the 11th inning. It was only the fourth time this year that the Orioles were involved in a 1-0 affair. They lost three of them.

2. The turning point

The 1997 season finally turned against the Orioles in Game 2 of the ALCS, when right-hander Armando Benitez served up a three-run home run to Marquis Grissom in the eighth inning that raised the Indians from the dead.

They were well on their way to a two-game deficit, but salvaged a split at Camden Yards and went on to win the first two games at Jacobs Field and take a commanding lead in the best-of-seven playoff series. Benitez would go on to give up a game-winning single to Sandy Alomar in Game 4 and the decisive home run in Game 6. It certainly will be a week he'll never forget.

3. Lenny's nightmare

Catcher Lenny Webster's disputed passed ball in Game 3 of the ALCS allowed Grissom to score the winning run from third base and give the Indians a 2-1 advantage in the ALCS. Webster said the ball was fouled off. Umpire John Hirschbeck said it wasn't. The replays were inconclusive.

If that wasn't bad enough, Webster was behind the plate the next night when the Indians scored two runs on a wild pitch. Webster tried to block the wild changeup from reliever Arthur Rhodes, then hit baserunner David Justice with the throw back to the plate. The ball skipped away and Sandy Alomar dashed home for the second free run in a one-run Orioles loss.

4. Brady's broken rib

Center fielder Brady Anderson broke a rib diving back to first base on a pickoff throw during the final week of spring training, essentially ending any hope of following up on his amazing 50-homer performance of 1996.

Anderson had to start the season in the designated hitter role and play the role of classic slap-hitting leadoff hitter while the rib cage injury healed. He did a great job of that, ranking among the league leaders in on-base percentage for much of the season, but had to settle for just 18 homers and 73 RBI -- which isn't bad for a leadoff guy, but wasn't the encore he was looking for in the option year of his contract.

5. Coppinger injured

Promising right-hander Rocky Coppinger was place on the disabled list Mar. 31 with a sore shoulder, forcing the Orioles to scramble for a No. 4 starter right as the regular season was about to begin. Coppinger would return for a month, but eventually went back on the DL and had to undergo surgery on both his shoulder and elbow.

The injury did not end up handicapping the Orioles, however, because right-hander Scott Kamieniecki took over that spot in the rotation and had a very solid year. He won 10 games and -- with a little luck -- could have finished with 14 or 15 regular season victories before coming up big in Game 5 of the ALCS.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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