Orioles Leave Cuba With a Win
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 1999; Page D1
HAVANA, March 28 The Baltimore Orioles may one day remember that they were part of a historic afternoon, one in which the often disparate worlds of sport and politics crowded into the same awkward intersection for a few unsettling hours. They may one day appreciate the unusual sight of Cuban President Fidel Castro wedged into a box seat between Orioles owner Peter Angelos and baseball commissioner Bud Selig for an afternoon of baseball and small talk.
And the Orioles may one day remember a day that began with the kind of pomp and ceremony associated with the Olympics, an honor befitting the first major league team in 40 years to play a game in Cuba.
All of that may come later, because when the Orioles departed this evening what they probably remembered was how close they came to losing this afternoon. In the end, they accomplished their stated goal of defeating a Cuban all-star team, but they needed 3½ hours and 11 innings to squeak out a 3-2 victory in front of 50,000 at Estadio Latinoamericano.
The Orioles won it in the top of the 11th when designated hitter Harold Baines lined a single to center that scored Will Clark with the winning run. It ended a few minutes later when reliever Jesse Orosco got the final three outs, nailing down a game that Mike Timlin almost let get away in the eighth.
"I'm an optimist," Orioles Manager Ray Miller said when asked if he'd begun to think his team would lose. "I always expect things to work out."
Still, Miller knows this was a victory wrapped inside a thick blanket of defeat. As Cuban Manager Alfonso Urquiola said: "The main thing is it was a great show. The show is what the spectators deserved. We feel very satisfied in that. In baseball, as in life, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Sometimes even the best players lose a game. But we have the respect of the Orioles."
This was the $82 million Orioles unable to put away a team with a payroll of around $6,000. This was the 1999 Orioles looking a lot like the 1998 Orioles, a team that didn't have much speed and sometimes didn't have a lot of enthusiasm, either.
If it wasn't Timlin yielding a game-tying single in the eighth, it was Albert Belle going hitless in five at-bats, leaving six runners on base, striking out twice and loafing on a double-play grounder in the eighth.
Belle got two standing ovations during a spectacular display of batting practice power, but he left his game in the cage, failing to get a ball out of the infield during the real game. He also complained to the home plate umpire about a strike call and twice threw his batting helmet in anger.
Belle was one of the reasons the Orioles mustered just four hits in the first 10 innings. One of those four hits was a two-run home run by Charles Johnson, who gave his team a lead it held until the eighth.
Orioles starter Scott Erickson was splendid. After the Cubans ran themselves into two outs on the base paths in the first inning, Erickson took charge and gave up just five hits and a run in seven innings. But he was more than matched by a junk-balling Cuban named Jose Contreras, who relieved starter Jose Ibar in the third and strung together eight shutout innings.
Relying on a nifty change-up and an assortment of slurves and curves, Contreras kept the Orioles off balance, striking out 10 and not allowing anyone to reach third base.
"He mixes speeds very well," Orioles left fielder B.J. Surhoff said. "He kind of hid the ball. He throws his breaking ball when he's behind in the count and has a good split-finger. I think it helped that the wind was blowing in."
Contreras was out of gas by the 11th, and Urquiola brought in his hard-throwing closer, Pedro Lazo.
"He had thrown his amount of pitches," Urquiola said of his decision to remove Contreras. "This is what we planned. He was a little tired, and his speed was not good enough. And Lazo is very good."
Lazo struck out Mike Bordick to open the 11th, but Clark got a bad-hop double down the right field line and made it to second base. Clark hustled to third when Belle grounded out, and Surhoff was walked intentionally. Had the Cubans walked Baines as well, the next scheduled hitter was light-hitting rookie Jesse Garcia. Instead, Lazo pitched to Baines, who lined a fastball past the diving shortstop and into center field for the go-ahead run.
Miller had gone for the victory in the eighth when he brought in his closer, Timlin, with two outs and a runner on third base. The Orioles gave Timlin a four-year, $16 million contract last winter to perform in situations such as this. But third baseman Omar Linares spoiled Timlin's first meaningful appearance by grounding a single into left to score Jose Estrada with the tying run.
The Cubans almost won it in the 10th when reliever Mike Fetters had runners at first and second with one out. But he struck out Yobal Duentas and got Linares on a pop fly to Bordick to end it. After the Orioles scored in the top of the 11th, Orosco gave up only a one-out single.
"It was a very interesting experience," Erickson said. "It was interesting to see how excited all the people were. These were very good fans, loud and with a lot of energy."
The Orioles certainly didn't get a full taste of a real Cuban baseball crowd. Because tickets were distributed to selected individuals, the crowd lacked the bells, whistles, drums and rowdy energy that accompanied Friday and Saturday's opening games of the Cuban World Series.
The afternoon began with a flag ceremony involving players and coaches from both teams. Just before the first pitch, Castro visited briefly with the Orioles and then gave a short pep talk to his own players.
"The history of this event is not for us to judge," Surhoff said. "That's for others to write and us to read. Nobody came here thinking about history. We came to play a baseball game, and I think you saw a very good one."
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