NEW YORK -- The latest collapse by the Orioles' bullpen turned ugly last night.
With closer Armando Benitez as the erratic centerpiece, the Orioles fumbled a 9-5 decision to the New York Yankees, lowlighted by a wild brawl that spilled dangerously into the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium.
Protecting a 5-4 lead, Benitez allowed a game-winning three-run home run to Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams on his fourth pitch in the eighth inning. On his fifth pitch, Benitez hit first baseman Tino Martinez between the shoulder blades.
The brawl, which lasted almost 10 minutes, started with Yankees left-hander Graeme Lloyd sprinting in from the bullpen to charge Benitez. Eventually the fight rolled toward the Orioles' dugout with designated hitter Darryl Strawberry taking a sucker punch at Benitez. The force of Strawberry's swing carried him into the dugout, with players from both teams following. Alan Mills led the way, and pounded Strawberry in the face. Strawberry emerged with a bloodied mouth and a sore left hand after being restrained by Orioles bench coach Eddie Murray, third baseman Cal Ripken and Yankees manager Joe Torre.
The incident distracted from another embarrassing meltdown by team that has lost six straight and 22 of its past 32. It marked the second time in three days the Orioles had blown a seventh-inning lead. The loss also sent the Orioles into sole possession of last place in the American League East, 12 games behind the Yankees. The ugliness included a six-run Yankees rally that reversed what had once been a 5-1 Orioles lead.
The final indignity was Tim Raines' two-run homer off Bobby Munoz for the game's final runs.
Orioles manager Ray Miller said he did not "condone" Benitez's action but added that "things seemed to have died down until a couple of their guys got involved."
The incident embodied a season of frustration for the Orioles, who fell to 20-24 with the loss. The blown save was the bullpen's seventh. The game-changing home run lifted Williams to 4-for-5 lifetime against Benitez.
"Bernie's hit him pretty well in the past," said Orioles catcher Lenny Webster. "Three or four times he's taken him deep. I don't think he handled it in a mannerable fashion. Frustration goes up and people do things out of character. He's young. He's got to learn. But when something like that happens you've got to support your teammate."
Said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter: "You've got a guy on the mound throwing 100 miles per hour. That was just dumb from the start."
After hitting Martinez, Benitez appeared to goad the Yankees by dropping his glove, stretching out his arms and curling his fingers as if calling them out of their dugout. The Yankees accepted the challenge, pulling the Orioles onto the field and emptying both bullpens. Players appeared content to mill about until Lloyd rushed Benitez and threw a wild punch. Fellow reliever Jeff Nelson followed as Benitez retreated from the mob.
Plate umpire Drew Coble ejected Benitez, Lloyd, Mills, Nelson and Strawberry. He put the blame on Benitez.
"I ejected Benitez almost before the pitch got there," Coble said. "You're always looking for it and hope it doesn't happen. I felt he would throw at him. I didn't feel he would throw up at his head like he did. If you're going to throw at anyone you throw at his feet."
The Orioles' closer insisted appearances were deceiving.
"It was not intentional. I'm sorry, but I was only trying to throw inside," Benitez said.
There was little defense offered for Benitez's actions within his own clubhouse though the Orioles pointed a finger at the Yankees for starting the fight.
"I told Tino it was over," said Webster, who attempted to contain Martinez during the scrum. "Tino said. 'No, it's not. That's the second time he's done that.' So I can understand how mad Tino is. But after you get hold of the guy and he's under control, nothing should start up."
The Yankees first baseman was referring to a 1995 fight when he was with the Seattle Mariners. Facing Benitez immediately after a home run, he was hit by a pitch, triggering a brawl.
Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner was livid and appeared in the press box.
"I've never seen anything like that in 25 years. That guy that pitcher should be suspended for the rest of the year. That was a classless act. He's got no class," Steinbrenner said.
"I don't know any other way to put it," said Torre. "It was a rotten thing to do. It was so blatant. Benitez caused a riot. That's the downside to the designated hitter. The pitcher gets braver when he doesn't have to face the music."
The Orioles again wasted a potentially turnaround performance, this time from emergency starter Doug Johns. Appearing for the first time since landing on the disabled list with insomnia, Johns survived five innings while allowing only one run. The combination of obstacles he cleared typically occur during calamitous starts.
The Yankees reached Johns for eight hits while accepting two walks and a hit batsman -- again, Martinez -- and two more reached on errors. Six of the first 10 hitters to face Johns reached base but none scored. Johns retired consecutive hitters only twice but benefited from some of the Orioles' best defense this season.
Having scored the game's first run, the Orioles built a 5-1 lead by parlaying two hits into three third-inning runs off Yankees starter David Cone. Consecutive one-out walks to Brady Anderson and Jeffrey Hammonds led to Roberto Alomar's RBI double off the center-field wall. Hammonds held third base but scored along with Alomar when Baines followed with his second single and third RBI of the night.
From there, the meltdown began. Sidney Ponson, Mills and Charlton -- who got the loss after giving up a single to the only batter he faced -- preceded Benitez.
"He hit the guy," Webster said. "It's over with. I'm sure down the road, this series even, one of our guys is going to get hit."
In this corner
The main combatants in last night's eighth-inning brawl at Yankee Stadium:
Armando Benitez, O's: Drilled Tino Martinez in back with pitch; gestured at Yankees' dugout after being ejected.
Darryl Strawberry, Yankees: First to go after Benitez, then sucker-punched pitcher near O's dugout.
Graeme Lloyd, Yankees: Came charging in from bullpen and started flailing away at Benitez. Edge: Benitez.
Alan Mills, O's: Decked Strawberry with right cross to face after Yankees outfielder had sucker-punched Benitez.
Best supporting role: Jeff Nelson joining Lloyd in tag-team on Benitez.
Up next: [AL president Gene Budig] may say he wants Peter Angelos and I to go three rounds and settle it. I'm ready." -- Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Pub Date: 5/20/98