Needing a Miracle, O's Come Up Short
Monday, July 2, 2007
BALTIMORE, July 1 -- Whether he sent Melvin Mora home or held him at third base, third base coach Juan Samuel was taking a risk. The danger in telling Mora to tag up on Brian Roberts's shallow fly was more obvious. The Baltimore Orioles were down one run in the bottom of the ninth inning, and Mora being thrown out meant a game-ending double play. Charging in under the ball was Vladimir Guerrero, whose right arm was once described by a teammate as "a miracle."
But while far more subtle, Samuel also saw danger in holding Mora. On the mound was closer Francisco Rodriguez. "How many two-out hits are you going to get off of K-Rod?" Samuel said later. On deck was Freddie Bynum, whose last at-bat was on June 24.
Samuel never had a second thought. So even after Guerrero threw out Mora to end the Orioles' 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, Samuel did not regret his decision.
"If I'm going to win or lose, that's how I'm going to do it," Samuel said. "I would do that again. We know who was on the on-deck circle, and we weren't going to take a chance on trying to get a two-out hit there."
"Good baseball," interim manager Dave Trembley said. "That's a good call."
Mora began the final rally with a one-out, ground-rule double to right-center field. Jay Payton followed with a surprise bunt down the third base line, catching Chone Figgins off guard enough to beat his throw by a step.
Up came Roberts, the Orioles' lone all-star. He lifted a Rodriguez offering to right field, shallow enough that Trembley, at first, thought it would fall. Guerrero made a running basket catch, and Mora bolted. Guerrero paused ever so slightly, as if surprised Mora would challenge him. Then he launched into his throwing motion and rocketed the ball home.
Catcher Mike Napoli caught the ball in the right batter's box and shuffled across the plate, trying to block Mora. He did, but as he took his last step, Mora crashed into him, feet first and spikes up. A piece of Napoli's shin guard flew off his leg. Home plate umpire Gerry Davis called Mora out.
It seemed an easy call, particularly because Guerrero's throw had arrived well before Mora. But replays showed Mora slid between Napoli's legs as Napoli made his final lunge across the plate, and Napoli had tagged Mora on the thigh as his foot touched home, perhaps before Napoli applied his tag.
Did Mora think he was safe?
"I don't know," he said. "I was just thinking about the pain that I had. I hit him real bad at home plate."
The collision was so violent that both players limped off the field. Later, Napoli hobbled around the Angels' clubhouse on crutches and an air cast. Mora bruised the top of his right foot.
After the play, Napoli stumbled a few steps toward the pitcher's mound, then crumpled on the infield. The entire Angels team surrounded him as the Orioles filtered from the dugout; the last player to leave was Mora.
The bitter taste in the Orioles' clubhouse resulted not from how close the final play was, but from the entire game. The Orioles entered the eighth down 3-2, and Jeremy Guthrie had retired 11 straight hitters when Napoli launched a solo homer to left.
"The biggest frustration today," Guthrie said. "With Lackey throwing the way he did, it felt like a 4-2 lead was impossible to come back from."
But it wasn't. With Roberts on third and Bynum pinch running on first, Ramon Hernandez came on as a pinch hitter. At his discretion, Bynum stole second, pulling shortstop Orlando Cabrera toward second base. Hernandez's sharp ground ball scooted through the infield, where Cabrera had been standing.
Roberts scored to make it 4-3, and the Orioles had men on second and third with one out. With the infield in, Nick Markakis killed the rally with a ground ball to second base. He went 0 for 4 with a strikeout, failing to hit the ball out of the infield each time.
The Orioles mounted another rally in the ninth, only to see it evaporate in a flash. Still, no matter the danger of testing Guerrero, the parties involved would do it again.
"That was the chance we had," Mora said. "So we had to go."