CLEVELAND -- Last year in this too-close place, he embodied their frustration. Last night, Rafael Palmeiro personified the Orioles' refusal to let go of a still implausible but not yet impossible turnabout.
Motivated by an increasingly complex mix of career uncertainty, personal achievement and his club's tenuous stretch for the postseason, Palmeiro ended a 3-hour, 57-minute thrill ride with a three-run, 12th-inning homer off Steve Reed for a 7-4 victory over the Cleveland Indians before 43,217 at Jacobs Field.
Last October, this place sent him into an off-season funk following the Orioles' six-game AL Championship Series loss. When his 37th homer landed last night, Palmeiro officially became the second Oriole to construct four consecutive 100-RBI seasons. Eddie Murray, now an Orioles coach, was the first (1982-85).
The Orioles won despite trailing 4-0 after five innings. They did so primarily because of a bullpen that stifled the Indians on two hits over 8 1/3 innings while Brady Anderson, Harold Baines, Cal Ripken and Lenny Webster chipped away at Indians starter Dwight Gooden and a lesser bullpen.
"After three or four innings it seemed we were getting killed and that they had all these hits. Then you looked up and it was only 4-0 and they had four hits. We score a couple of runs and we're right there. It was kind of odd. Something like that. It's a good game to win," Anderson said. "A lot of bad things happened early and a lot of good things happened at the end."
In between, right fielder Eric Davis' sixth-inning double pushed his hitting streak to 28 games, tying the Anaheim Angels' Garret Anderson for the longest in the major leagues this season.
Manager Ray Miller's right-left whipsaw of Doug Johns, Jesse Orosco, Alan Mills, Jimmy Key and Pete Smith (2-3) carried the game until Armando Benitez pitched a routine 12th for his 17th save. Johns, largely the bullpen's forgotten arm, reversed the momentum with 3 1/3 innings of one-hit relief. He got only one fewer out than troubled rookie starter Sidney Ponson, who allowed every leadoff hitter he saw to reach base. Three scored.
The ending was built for Palmeiro. He singled in two earlier at-bats and faced Reed after Anderson and Davis singled before him. He carried 99 RBIs to the plate.
"In that situation, I'm just trying to get something up. The last thing I want to do is hit into a double play. I thought he would throw me something down. When he threw me a changeup, I just stayed back on it and tried to drive it," he said.
The shot landed 388 feet later, giving the pending free-agent first baseman 16 RBIs in his past 14 games and 53 in his past 56.
"I don't think about it that way. I'm just trying to help us win right now. Whatever else happens, happens," he said.
Just as there exists an obvious difference between Miller's dynamic second-half bullpen and his overused first-half group, there is also a change in Palmeiro. Last season he built solid numbers with a late-season push.
"I think last year he had one slump. This year he hasn't had any," Anderson said. "He's been very consistent."
Palmeiro wilted famously during the Indians series and became the symbol for a team that crashed at the plate. During that endless week, Palmeiro carried his frustration from the on-deck circle, dragging his bat behind him into the batter's box. He ended the series on the bench, removed for a pinch runner. Last night he contributed a ninth stolen base.
"I really believe last postseason had an effect on him. He's much more open with Ricky [Down], Eddie [Murray] and me," said Miller, referring to his hitting and bench coaches, respectively.
Held to one hit for three innings by Dwight Gooden, a pitcher running on fumes, the Orioles recovered with a two-run sixth and an eighth-inning breakout against left-hander Paul Assenmacher and Paul Shuey. While the Orioles mashed eight hits from the sixth through the eighth innings, their rally would have meant little had it not been for the five-man combination.
"It's good to contribute in a small way. This is a great team with great guys and some great personalities," Smith said. "When I came over, I just wanted to fit in. Helping like this is a good feeling."
Both staffs threw 182 pitches but the Orioles saved their best for late.
First, they scored two in the eighth to tie.
Given what Miller called "the consummate bullpen effort," the game then wound its way to Palmeiro. A hitter with well-defined goals that begin with 120 RBIs and also include a push for his first 40-homer season, Palmeiro is also involved in a construction project for his future free agency. Last night was the fifth time this season he has won a game with a homer.
Trailing the Boston Red Sox by eight games for the wild-card berth and still dreaming of playing in October, the Orioles have a determined Palmeiro who is making himself visible.
A look at Rafael Palmeiro's game-winning home runs this season:
Date Opp. ... Res. ... Skinny
6/1 Sea. .... 10-9 ... 2-out HR caps
............. ........ 4-run 8th
6/2 Sea. ..... 9-8 ... No-out 2-run HR
............. ........ in 10th
6/19 Tor. .... 7-4 ... 2-out 3-run HR
.............. ....... in 15th
7/22 Oak. .... 5-4 ... 2-out HR in 9th
8/13 Cle. .... 7-4 ... No-out 3-run HR
.............. ....... in 12th
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Jacobs Field, Cleveland
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Mike Mussina (10-6, 3.49) vs. Indians' Charles Nagy (10-7, 5.24)
Pub Date: 8/14/98