CLEVELAND -- Marquis Grissom is in Milwaukee, Tony Fernandez is in Toronto, but Armando Benitez still can't finish the Cleveland Indians.
He was three outs away with a one-run lead last night; three outs away from completing the Orioles' most stirring, sweeping triumph of the season.
But once again, he failed to escape.
The Indians had three game-winning hits against Benitez in last year's American League Championship Series, including the homers by Grissom and Fernandez.
This time, they tied the score before Benitez even recorded an out, then earned a 6-5 victory on a two-out single by Omar Vizquel at rollicking Jacobs Field.
Benitez got beat with his second-best pitch in the ALCS, throwing hanging sliders to Grissom and Fernandez.
This time, he threw Vizquel his best fastball, with no difference in results.
"You've got to have tough skin to pitch the ninth inning," manager Ray Miller said. "If you're going to learn to be a closer, you've got to get through things like that."
Perhaps this game represented nothing more than growing pains for Benitez. Or perhaps it reflected a greater problem that will haunt the Orioles all season.
It was the first time since May 4, 1997, that they lost a game after leading in the ninth. And on a night when so much else went right, it was an absolute crusher.
The Orioles want to use this trip as a springboard, but they now trail the Yankees by nine games in the loss column. Tonight, they will try to avoid a sweep behind Scott Erickson, who is 0-4 with a 7.91 ERA in six career starts at the Jake.
This was a night when Miller made all the right moves, dictating matchups, inserting Eric Davis and Charlie Greene for defense, even hitting Lenny Webster for Harold Baines in the ninth, and seeing Webster drive in the go-ahead run.
This was a night when Jimmy Key pitched 6 2/3 solid innings and left with a 4-3 lead. A night when the bullpen was rested. A night when the Orioles seemed poised to post a rare victory at the Jake, where they're 7-18, including last year's ALCS.
Their bullpen-by-committee has been a minor issue to this point, with so few late-inning leads to protect. But now the Orioles are playing better, and their save chances figure to increase.
Benitez is still 6-for-6 in that department, but he took the loss last night, and has been lifted for Jesse Orosco in two other save situations. He also has allowed home runs to his first batter faced three times.
The Indians' ninth-inning rally began when Sandy Alomar hit a bloop single over his brother Roberto's head at second base, and continued when Benitez walked Jim Thome on a 3-2 pitch.
At that point, Travis Fryman tried to drop a sacrifice bunt and give the Orioles an out. But Benitez hit Fryman, trying to jam him with a high fastball.
"That hurts," Miller said. "That almost mandates a strikeout."
With the bases loaded, Miller considered going to Arthur Rhodes, but resisted against pinch hitter Brian Giles, a high-fastball hitter.
Miller needed a strikeout, and reasoned that Benitez throws nearly 100 mph.
Benitez walked Giles to force in a run.
He rebounded to strike out Shawon Dunston and retire Kenny Lofton on a foul pop, and Miller again had the option of using Rhodes against the switch-hitting Vizquel.
But he stayed with Benitez, and Vizquel turned on a 1-1 fastball, drilling his game-winning single to right.
"I grabbed Armando and said, 'This is part of the game, a steppingstone for you. Don't back off,' " Miller said.
Benitez sat calmly at his locker afterward, answering every question.
"He [Miller] talked to me and said, 'Don't worry about it. I know you can do the job. You showed me you're not scared. You don't have to feel bad,' " Benitez said.
"I said, 'It's over now. Tomorrow's a new day. I want to have the chance again to do my job.' "
The blame did not rest solely with Benitez. Indians starter Jaret Wright lasted seven innings, and Miller said the Orioles should have chased him sooner. Orosco and Alan Mills also played contributing roles in the defeat.
The Indians have won nearly 65 percent at Jacobs Field since its opening in 1994. When Mills allowed a leadoff single to No. 9 hitter Shawon Dunston with the Orioles leading 4-3 in the eighth, the place came alive.
Orosco replaced Mills to face Kenny Lofton, who was 1-for-12 lifetime off the veteran left-hander.
Orosco almost always retired the first batter he faced last season, allowing only four hits in 57 at-bats (.070). But, he, too, is struggling this season -- six of his 12 first batters have reached base.
Lofton appeared to bail on a 1-2 breaking ball, then recovered to stroke a single to center. Vizquel followed with a perfect sacrifice, creating another left-left matchup with David Justice.
Miller could have ordered an intentional walk, then summoned Benitez to face Manny Ramirez with the bases loaded. But Justice is batting .255 against left-handers this season, down from .322 last year.
"Jesse's got to get lefties out -- that's what he's supposed to do," Miller said.
Well, Orosco retired Justice, thanks to B.J. Surhoff's sprawling catch in short left field. Dunston tagged at third, and Surhoff's two-hop throw caught him in the right foot. The error allowed the tying run to score.
Benitez completed the inning by retiring Ramirez to strand Lofton at third, and Webster hit his go-ahead single off Paul Assenmacher with two outs in the ninth.
Then came the bottom half.
Benitez vs. the Indians.
No Fernandez. No Grissom. And still, no escape.
Pub Date: 5/06/98