The time passed weeks ago for the Orioles to make noise within the American League East. Last night, with his team's hopes for reaching the postseason now reduced to an impossible dream, Cal Ripken stirred a clubhouse.
Ripken broke a personal skid as well as a 2-2 tie by looping a two-out, two-strike single off reliever Jim Corsi (2-1) in the eighth inning to push the Orioles to a 3-2 win over the Boston Red Sox before 48,014 at Camden Yards. The win was only the 39-50 Orioles' second in 12 games and reversed a crushing string of one-run losses suffered in New York last weekend.
It also extended Ripken a forum to make an understated plea for keeping the core of this team together.
Fearing a descent into the same kind of rebuilding that pocked the earlier portion of his career, Ripken, 37, spoke in behalf of re-signing free-agent second baseman Roberto Alomar and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.
Only 21 days remain until the trading deadline. Long reluctant to address "general manager questions," the 16-time All-Star spoke as a someone who sees a flickering chance at another World Series close to extinction. "The thought of having a totally different team, of changing the whole thing and maybe not being considered a contending club concerns me," Ripken acknowledged minutes after his jam shot into shallow left field scored Eric Davis with the game-winning run.
Two days after being named the All-Star Game's Most Valuable Player, Alomar led off the Orioles' first inning with a home run. Palmeiro's deep fly ball allowed Davis to tag from second before Ripken's game-winning hit.
The situation landed squarely in Ripken's lap after Red Sox manager Jimy Williams ordered B. J. Surhoff intentionally walked to bring a two-out, first-and-third situation to him. Ripken also confronted a 6-for-38 funk and three previous unimpressive at-bats.
Nothing personal, Williams said, but show me.
"Cal's a professional. He's been a great hitter all his life. He gears up for situations like that," Williams reflected afterward.
"I've never taken it personally. Sometimes it heightens your sense of concentration," Ripken said.
In this case it improved Ripken's drop shot. He muscled Corsi's 2-2 pitch just beyond Nomar Garciaparra. Davis, who had stretched another flare into a leadoff double before tagging on Palmeiro's fly to deep center, scored easily. The run gave left-hander Jesse Orosco (2-1) the win in his 992nd career appearance. Armando Benitez got the last three outs for his 10th save, and only his second since June 1.
The deciding run came an inning too late to benefit hard-luck Orioles starter Mike Mussina, whose only crimes were bases-empty home runs surrendered to John Valentin and Darren Bragg that cost him an early 2-0 lead. The Orioles had grabbed the lead on bases-empty homers by Alomar and Mike Bordick the first time through the order against Red Sox starter Bret Saberhagen. Alomar's two-hit performance only made Ripken's comments more pertinent.
Ripken said: "There's a lot of things you have to consider if you're the owner or the general manager. As a player, you really see it in only the small picture. But the caliber of talent that Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar [possess], from a player's perspective I'd never let those guys get away. Who better do you get at first base? Who better do you get at second base? Without even thinking about it, they're young enough in their careers to give you five or more great years."
Ripken described the seemingly imminent shake-up as "unsettling for me. I can only imagine what it's like for the players involved."
"I can't do anything about it," Alomar said. "It's something that's not even in my hands. My job is to play baseball and that's what I'm continuing to do."
Ripken endured a brutal rebuilding period earlier in career. Despite the assurances of majority owner Peter Angelos that his finances can make a one-year remodeling work, Ripken appears skeptical. He turns 38 next month and knows there won't be many more birthdays in uniform.
Manager Ray Miller chooses not to discuss such matters. He instead took the clubhouse floor before the game to urge his team to forget the first half, make the second into its own season, and strive to have fun.
As for second-half goals? "With everything we've been through, I'm not even thinking about it, to be honest with you," Miller said. "Like I told the team today, let's enjoy each game. Let's play each game. Let's get back to having fun and not putting so much pressure on ourselves."
Fun hardly describes what the Orioles are going through. Virtually every player considers himself a trade candidate. Avoiding a 90-loss season is a more realistic challenge than reaching the postseason. "Fun is a product of doing well and being successful, being confident and happy," Ripken said. "When you win, you add all those things up and you walk around feeling good about yourself. When you're struggling, you can tell yourself to relax and be happy. But that's a little harder to do."
"We're in bad shape overall," Mussina said. "But we want to try and play better baseball the second half."
Mussina's exit after 106 pitches despite retiring seven consecutive hitters was the result of early sins. He walked three in the first two innings before rallying to strike out Troy O'Leary and Darren Lewis to end the threats. He allowed five hits, all for extra bases. Miller has allowed Mussina to go past 116 pitches only twice this season -- none since May 19. Last night was the second straight game he had left tied at 2.
"He's a battler. He really knows how to pitch," said Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn (0-for-3) of Mussina. "He hung in there and kept his team in the game. And he threw the ball real well."
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 35
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Red Sox's Pedro Martinez (11-2, 2.87) vs. O's Scott Erickson (8-7, 4.24) Tickets: About 200 remain
Pub Date: 7/10/98