CLEVELAND -- Another lead against the Cleveland Indians. Another meltdown. Another ninth-inning loss that clings to Armando Benitez and the Orioles.
In a disturbing replay of last October's American League Championship Series disaster, Benitez aided and abetted the Indians before Omar Vizquel's two-out single capped a two-run, ninth-inning rally that turned a one-run Orioles lead into a 6-5 loss before 40,706 last night at Jacobs Field.
The loss marked the first time in more than a year that the Orioles had lost after leading in the ninth inning.
Benitez served as a poignant centerpiece. He was involved in three of the losses in last year's ALCS, ending the series as its tragic figure.
"They got the hit. They won the game," said Benitez (1-1). "I have to be ready to come back out tomorrow and do the job. I have to forget this."
Manager Ray Miller again assumed the role of comforter for Benitez. However, sloppy, late-inning losses continue to mount for the Orioles. They squandered leads of 3-0 and 4-3 before losing in the ninth. It is becoming a familiar refrain for a team that last year rarely buckled with a lead.
"We're playing good baseball. We are. But we're letting some things get away," said reliever Jesse Orosco, who got the first two outs of the eighth inning.
The loss overshadowed a two-run homer by B. J. Surhoff that provided an early 3-0 lead and pinch hitter Lenny Webster's two-out RBI single in the top of the ninth that put Benitez in position to gain a win rather than a loss.
"Every little thing counts every little thing that you can do from the first inning to the ninth inning," said Miller, whose team has surrendered leads of at least two runs in its last three losses.
"We have a guy dead at home plate and the throw hits him in the foot. For whatever reason, those things are happening. We also had 11 hits and only had five runs. We loaded up the front part of the order and that's where we got the production."
Miller started a lineup top-heavy with left-handed hitters against hard-throwing right-hander Jaret Wright. In return, he received three hits from leadoff hitter Roberto Alomar, two RBIs from No. 2 hitter Surhoff and two hits from No. 3 Harold Baines.
This time the Orioles couldn't cite bullpen burnout or forced matchups. Everything seemed in place for their fourth victory in five games.
"This would have been a big one," Miller said.
Before the late-inning drama began, Jimmy Key provided another assuring start. Key contained Cleveland on three runs and five hits in 6 1/3 innings. Miller lifted him after 100 pitches.
An Indians eighth-inning rally ended Key's hopes for his fifth win in six decisions.
Indians left fielder Shawon Dunston, who tripled and scored Cleveland's first run in the third inning, led off the eighth with a sharp single off Alan Mills. Orosco came on to face center fielder Kenny Lofton, who was 1-for-12 in his career against the lefty. Lofton singled to center.
After a sacrifice, David Justice hit a flare to left that was snared by a sliding Surhoff, who quickly regained his feet and threw home, but the ball hit Dunston's leg.
The Orioles quickly regained the lead as Mike Bordick hit a one-out single in the ninth off Mike Jackson and scored on Webster's line drive to center off Paul Assenmacher (2-3). Lofton fielded it on a hop and threw a one-bounce strike home, but Bordick beat the throw with a neat slide.
Miller managed his best game to date only to have his good work disintegrate as Benitez flailed about for control. Miller acknowledged he could have imported left-hander Arthur Rhodes to face Vizquel, given the slap-hitting shortstop's 1-for-18 lifetime success against him. But if Benitez is to become a dominant closer, he must become adept at finishing innings when given a sliver of opportunity.
"You try to get the right people in the right spot and play baseball," said Miller, who benefited from consecutive off days for all his relievers except Rhodes. "It happens kind of fast. We had the table set. We had the right people there. We just came up short. They have a good offensive team. They've had some success late in games.
"You have to figure out how you can go home and sleep good at night. Tonight I can go home and sleep good."
At 16-15, the Orioles would do well to quickly wake up. The defeat dropped them nine games behind the New York Yankees in the loss column and 5 1/2 games overall behind the second-place Boston Red Sox.
Worst of all for the Orioles, they've lost their deed to the ninth inning.
Benitez came on to get the final out of the eighth inning with the game tied 4-4 and the go-ahead run at third base. He escaped that jam by getting Manny Ramirez to line back to the mound, where he knocked the ball down and threw to first.
Benitez couldn't escape a mess of his own making in the ninth as the Indians (18-12) posted their 10th comeback win of the year and fifth in their last at-bat at home.
"It's a fine line. You've got to get the people out in front of you," Miller said. "We were in the part of the order where you have to get them out."
Catcher Sandy Alomar led off the ninth with a bloop single over his brother Roberto and into right field, then took second when Benitez walked Jim Thome on a full count. Hoping to push the winning run into scoring position, Indians manager Mike Hargrove had third baseman Travis Fryman bunt.
After Fryman popped up a bunt that reached the seats, Benitez hit him with a pitch.
Rather than take the inning's first out, Benitez loaded the bases with none out. "That hurts," Miller said. "That almost mandates a strikeout."
Pitching coach Mike Flanagan said, "Not taking that out hurt. If we get that out, maybe things are different. You don't care if they bunt because against Armando, it's hard for anyone to get a good one down."
Benitez forced in the tying run by walking pinch hitter Brian Giles. Miller's patience was nearly rewarded when Benitez struck out Dunston for the first out then got Lofton to foul out to third base for the second.
Dunston had scored three of the Indians' first three runs. Lofton had driven in their first three.
Benitez tried to run his third pitch inside to Vizquel but the switch-hitter was waiting. He drilled the pitch through the infield's right side to end it.
"He hit a good pitch," Benitez said. "I tried to come inside on him with a fastball. He was quick on it. I'd like to say he hit a bad pitch. But it was where I wanted it. If he doesn't get that pitch, I strike him out."
Trouble with Tribe
Beginning with last year's ALCS, the Orioles have lost four straight games to the Indians when Armando Benitez has appeared. A look:
'97 .. .... .. .IP .. ..H .. ..ER .. ..BB .. ..K
5/24 .. .ND .. ..1 .. ..0 .. ...0 .. ...1 .. ..0
5/31 .. .ND .. .. 1/3 .. ..0 .. ...0 .. ...0 .. ..1
9/9 .. ..ND .. .1 2/3 .. ..2 .. ...0 .. ...2 .. ..3
9/15 .. ..W .. .1 2/3 .. ..0 .. ...0 .. ...1 .. ..3
*10/9 .. .L .. .1 .. ...1 .. ...3 .. ...2 .. ..3
*10/11 ..ND-x ..1 .. ...0 .. ...0 .. ...1 .. ..1
*10/12 ..ND-x ..0 .. ...1 .. ...0 .. ...1 .. ..0
'98 .. .. .. ..IP .. ...H .. ..ER .. ..BB .. ..K
5/5 .. .. L .. .1 .. ...2 .. ...2 .. ...2 .. ..1
* -- ALCS
x -- No decision in O's loss
How the Indians scored twice in the ninth last night to beat Orioles reliever Armando Benitez:
Alomar singled to right.
Fryman was hit by a pitch, loading the bases.
Giles walked, scoring Alomar.
Dunston struck out swinging.
Lofton fouled out to third base.
Vizquel singled to right, scoring Thome.
Pub Date: 5/06/98