A month devoid of pennant fever but ripe for personal achievement yesterday made time for Orioles left fielder B.J. Surhoff. Former No. 1 draft pick, defensive nomad and complementary player among a clubhouse of glittering names, Surhoff reached a significant personal goal in exquisite fashion when his three-run, fifth-inning home run not only sealed his first 100-RBI season but also accounted for the Orioles' 4-1 win over the Seattle Mariners.
Surhoff's home run -- his career-high 27th -- came off Mariners starter John Halama in the 13th season and 6,121st career at-bat of the fourth-year Oriole's understated but effective career.
Wrapped within another complete-game win by starting pitcher Scott Erickson, a three-hit day and defensive clinic by shortstop Mike Bordick and one of his team's most impressive performances of the season, Surhoff's home run verified the ascendancy of an uncommon player. A catcher-turned-third baseman-turned-left fielder, Surhoff, 35, extended a breakthrough season at a time when many his age experience the first signs of decline.
The home run -- his 190th hit -- left him with 101 RBIs and within striking distance of teammate Cal Ripken's franchise hit mark (211). Having brought only 57 career home runs to Baltimore in 1996, Surhoff can now taste 30 for a season.
"It would be great to accomplish all that, but it would be even nicer within the context of a pennant race," said Surhoff, who established his previous RBI high last season with 92. "I'm not trying to downplay it. But when you're in the middle of [a race], it's much easier to focus on the game. The hard part of it is when you fall out of it, you have to not just focus on yourself.
"That's not necessarily a very easy thing to do."
Barely three months after finding himself 1-8 and averaging little more than five innings a start, Erickson (13-11) allowed five hits while completing his sixth game to tie teammate Sidney Ponson for the league lead. Erickson also now tops the league in innings pitched with 208 2/3. Considered the staff plow horse, Erickson is 5-1 since Aug. 13 and 12-3 since June 4, his last loss at Camden Yards.
"I went out and tried to throw strikes, keep the ball down, make them hit it in play and tried not to throw too many pitches," said Erickson. "They're a pretty good hitting ballclub and the less pitches they see, the better chance I have. Luckily, I kept it close to the zone."
Surhoff is universally considered as a "grinder," a label he gladly accepts. Prone to public displays of frustration but seldom willing to reveal satisfaction, the combination of a season's wear and his own standards recently appeared to rub hard against him.
The home run off Halama was only Surhoff's seventh in 61 games since July 5. In possession of the game's longest active consecutive game streak (305), it is easy to see a correlation.
When Surhoff awoke yesterday, his knees screamed. Truth to tell, he didn't much feel like playing. It wasn't until he stepped in against Halama in the fifth inning with the Orioles trailing 1-0 that things improved. With Mike Figga and Bordick on, Surhoff yanked Halama's pitch 378 feet into the right-center-field bleachers for a 3-1 reversal. Relief was among the first sensations that coursed through him.
"It seems like things happen for a reason. I couldn't have painted a better picture of how I would like it to happen the first time. A guy's pitching well. Two outs. First and second. Down a run. It's the best way it could have happened," Surhoff said.
A first-time All-Star two months ago, the 35-year-old Surhoff continues to add to his reputation as a complete player. In 12 previous seasons, he never hit 25 home runs, scored or drove in 100 runs, generated more than 160 hits or batted .300 over a full schedule. With 19 games remaining, he is 10 hits shy of 200, is one of three Orioles to have scored at least 95 runs, ranks second on the club with 27 home runs and leads with 306 total bases. He and Bordick will also receive consideration for Gold Glove Awards after this season.
Surhoff and right fielder Albert Belle, who reached the 100-RBI plateau Thursday in Minneapolis, became the Orioles' seventh tag team to reach 100 RBIs in the same season and the first to do so since 1996.
"He is at the top of his game. Physically, he's in great shape. That's a testament to his work ethic, which is phenomenal," said hitting coach Terry Crowley.
As a second straight season withers for the Orioles, Surhoff is reminded that he could have accepted a longer-term, more lucrative deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates or defected to the National League, wild-card-leading New York Mets, who envisioned him as their left fielder before signing Rickey Henderson to a one-year deal.
"This is where I wanted to play," Surhoff said. "The easy thing would be to say that I made a bad decision. But there was no guarantee we were going to win. I just hoped I would be a piece of the puzzle and help us win."
The Orioles' puzzle has never come together since a 6-16 April. Yesterday's win improved the Orioles to 67-76 and extended their win streak to six within a 9-3 September. Had last winter's choice been different, Surhoff might be helping the Mets into the playoffs.
"It's easy to say I should have gone there," said Surhoff, who on Dec. 4 accepted less guaranteed money to remain in Baltimore rather than become the centerpiece of the small-market Pirates' rebuilding efforts. "You can try to jump from situation to situation and say I'd love to play there, but it's very rewarding to stay and play through some down times, so when you get a chance to win you really appreciate it."
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Gil Meche (6-4, 5.46) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (11-11, 4.42)
Tickets: About 9,900 remain Pub Date: 9/13/99