Trapped within the high beams of a runaway bandwagon, the Seattle Mariners learned last night how terrifying the downtown intersection of Salary Drive and Wild-Card Way can be.
Pending free-agent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro's two home runs combined with four RBIs from increasingly visible right fielder Rich Becker and 7 2/3 solid innings from Mike Mussina pushed the Orioles to a 7-4 win before 48,148 at Camden Yards. The Orioles drew within seven games of the wild card-leading Boston Red Sox.
It may now be time to believe. The Orioles, winners five in a row and 11 straight at Camden Yards, are within a whisper's distance of enjoying the identical situation that confronted them in 1996, when they earned the wild card and rolled to the American League Championship Series. That year, they languished six games behind the wild card on Aug. 3. Should they pick up another game on the Red Sox in the next eight games, they will duplicate the situation.
"Coming out of the break, I don't think anybody expected to win 14 out of 15," Mussina said. "We were hoping to play better. We've made up 8 1/2 games [on Boston] in 15 games. We didn't expect to do that, and I don't think we could have.
Now we're in a position we wanted to be in from the beginning."
Palmeiro's homers -- he now has 33 -- in consecutive at-bats off Mariners starter Bill Swift (9-6) broke ties of 2-2 and 3-3. His second, with Jeff Reboulet at first, cleared the right-field scoreboard and landed an estimated 418 feet away, becoming the 19th shot in Camden Yards history to land on Eutaw Street between the park and the B&O; warehouse. Palmeiro has four of the blasts, most of any player.
The timing of his recent power surge has been more important than the volume. It was only Wednesday night that Palmeiro provided a sudden victory with a two-out, two-strike home run to beat the Oakland Athletics.
Palmeiro has five home runs in his last seven games but that hardly equals his most concentrated run of the season -- four homers in four days June 28-July 2. The Mariners remember him for beating them on consecutive days June 1 and 2.
Testifying to Palmeiro's consistency is the fact that last night marked his first multi-homer game this season. It was the 19th of his career.
"We know we can win now. Things are going our way. We want to keep on going. We're picking up as a team. Let's keep it going," Palmeiro said.
Last week, Palmeiro said the Orioles needed to claw within six games of the Red Sox by month's end. Reminded of the prediction, he said, "We'll be there."
As for last night, Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez said, "Two guys beat us tonight -- Palmeiro and Becker."
Becker contributed his first home run as an Oriole -- a two-run shot in the second inning to force a 2-2 game against Swift. He singled in the fourth inning then settled for a two-run bases-loaded double in the seventh when what appeared to be a grand slam was instead ruled a double.
His timing was impeccable. The night before the Orioles traded away Joe Carter to clarify a muddled outfield situation. Becker now platoons against right-handed pitching barely a month after being released by the New York Mets.
"By them trading Joe away it freed up a little more time for me. The more you play, the better a player you'll develop into," Becker said.
A month ago a pall covered this clubhouse. It has now been replaced by a tangible sense of momentum visible to anyone in the opposite dugout. "It seems like they feel they're going to win. It's good for them and hardly good for us. They're playing with confidence," said Mariners catcher John Marzano, who homered against Mussina in the fifth inning to force a 3-3 tie.
BTC According to Mussina, the biggest danger would be to become satisfied.
"I think -- I hope -- we really appreciate what it's like to be in this situation that we don't get lackadaisical going out there on a daily basis just because we've won this many games in a couple weeks," said Mussina. "We were so bad for long stretches of the first half that that's really hard. I hope we don't take any game lightly. And the way things seem around here, we want to go out every day and show we're a lot better that what we did in the past. For two-plus weeks we've done that."
This is the best stretch by any Orioles team since 1982, Cal Ripken's rookie season, when they made a belated and unsuccessful push at the Milwaukee Brewers by winning 17 of 18.
They now have a winning record for the first time since May 14, the night Mussina crumbled after being struck in the face by Sandy Alomar's line drive, so Mussina speaks knowingly of taking nothing for granted. Last night was his 10th start since returning from the incident. Now 8-5, he has pitched comfortably for only the last five.
"You have to pound him into the ground," said Rodriguez. "You can't let him catch a breather."
The Mariners reached him for two first-inning runs when Ken Griffey golfed a change-up for an RBI double and Edgar Martinez followed with a single. Once out of the inning, Mussina faced only 19 hitters the next six innings.
"Everything revolves around pitching and our staff is coming together. No one thought we would win 14 of 15 but we've stayed focused. No one got down," said designated hitter Eric Davis, who extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a third-inning double. "You make things happen and there's been a different person almost every night Raffy's on a tear but that's Raffy."
What might have been a career night for Becker was instead denied by outside interference. With one out and the bases loaded in the seventh inning, Becker slammed a drive toward the Orioles' bullpen. The ball caromed wildly toward the infield from what umpires ruled to be the top of the fence. Replays, and bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, indicated that the ball actually hit a railing inches behind the wall.
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1: 15
TV/Radio: Ch. 45/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Jeff Fassero (9-6, 3.86) vs. O's Scott Kamieniecki (2-2, 6.75)
* Tickets: Scattered singles
Pub Date: 7/25/98