Orioles' Bullpen Secures Victory

Ramon Hernandez, Chris Ray
Catcher Ramon Hernandez, left, and closer Chris Ray celebrate Ray's sixth save of the season as the Orioles come out of Yankee Stadium on Friday with a 6-5 win. (Julie Jacobson - AP)
By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006

NEW YORK, April 21 -- It was a pitch, a twisting, turning slider, that won a game and started a reputation. Chris Ray has said several times in this young season that he loves throwing the slider in a bases-loaded situation with the count full. But it couldn't come now, not at Yankee Stadium, not when the game was in peril.

So when Baltimore Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez plunked down his fingers and Ray nodded in agreement, it must have been a fastball, because nobody throws a slider in that spot in this hallowed, graying structure.

"I couldn't believe it was a 3-2 slider. That situation -- bases loaded, the runners going -- they deserve it," Alex Rodriguez said of the Orioles' 6-5 victory Friday night.

Ray, a 24-year-old first-year closer, took one quick glance at Hideki Matsui at the plate and then began his tangled delivery, full of arms and legs dangling and twisting, and uncorked a pitch.

"He made a good pitch," Derek Jeter said. "He throws 96 or 97 [mph], so I don't see how anyone can be looking for a slider there. I don't know if there's anyone in baseball looking for a slider 3-2, bases loaded."

The pitch arrived quickly, but instead of landing straight into Hernandez's glove, it took a quick turn to the left, settling just over the outside corner of the plate while Matsui just watched.

"I hadn't had too much success with the fastball that inning," Ray said of why he threw it.

Home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi raised his hand and just like that, the Yankees' threat, a bases-loaded nightmare, had ended, and Baltimore celebrated its eighth win in 11 games, leaving it only a half-game out of first place in the American League East.

"That last pitch was as gutsy as I've ever seen from a guy," Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo said. "If I'm a hitter, I'm not looking for that pitch. It was an absolute outstanding performance on his part. Great sign for a man that young. He finished the game in great style."

There have been all-stars and Hall of Famers who have come into Yankee Stadium and bowed under the pressure, not to mention rookies and well-traveled relievers. This stadium is not quite cozy for the visitors, and often for the home team, too. It was on this chilly night in New York though, when a young Baltimore Orioles team appeared to grow up.

"I sense we're coming together as a team," Perlozzo said.

It was Sendy Rleal, the rookie, who entered the game in the sixth with two men on base and got outs from Robinson Cano and Johnny Damon to end the threat. Jim Brower, beleaguered for most of this season, pitched a scoreless inning. LaTroy Hawkins had sent the game into the ninth inning for closer Ray. In Ray and Rleal, the Orioles have two young relievers who appear fearless.

"I felt calm," Rleal said of making his debut at Yankee Stadium in such a tight spot in the sixth. "I thought only about making my pitches."

It was as if this old stadium had wound something inside of Kevin Millar. There is no Oriole who has been involved in more important games against the Yankees than Millar, the stout first baseman and former Boston Red Sox player. It was the reason why Yankee Stadium jeered Millar each time he went to the plate. They jeered louder after Millar hit a two-run single in the sixth inning against Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang that gave the Orioles a 6-4 lead.

"This is a big win because you want to continue that success we've had," Millar said. "You want to get that swagger as a group. This club needs to have that."

Perhaps there is no bigger swagger than throwing a pitch that isn't expected. But now that Ray has thrown such a pitch, hitters might be looking for it. The deception was part of the success. Has he ruined part of his repertoire by unleashing it in such an environment where everyone is watching?

"That's good," Ray said. "Maybe next time they'll look for it and I'll throw my fastball."

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