The last person the struggling Baltimore Orioles needed to see tonight was Steve Comer, the little-known Texas right-hander who beats the Birds with more disdainful ease than any hurler in the American League.
The Birds think the junkballer's name is Coma.
Nolan Ryan or Ron Guidry -- bring 'em on. The O's battle the big names well, outsmarting the flame throwers, hunting and pecking for runs, laying their home-run land mines.
But don't let Comer into Memorial Stadium. He beat the O's for the third time in '79 tonight, 2-1 thanks to solo homers by Buddy Bell and Richie Zisk off Dennis Martinez, plus three run-saving fielding gems, and a four-out relief stint by bearded eccentric Jim Kern.
Kern was called on in the eighth, with two out and Orioles at second and third. After throwing over the catcher's head on his first warmup pitch, he struck out Doug Decinces on four fast balls.
It was, however, Comer's 7 2/3 innings of bedeviling work that humiliated and embarrassed the O's most as they lost their ninth game in 15. In 33 career innings, the Birds have managed two earned runs off Comer on 20 hits for just 21 total bases. No AL hurler can approach that record.
"You can't look worse than we have against that guy. He don't only beat us and keep us from hittin' the ball outta the park he don't even let us get a loud out . . . well, a couple," growled Manager Earl Weaver, whose flock had five singles before a crowd of 14,891.
"He has the uncanny knack of throwing the pitch that the hitter isn't expecting . . . like Mike Cuellar used to," said Weaver, whose only consolation was Boston's 7-2 loss in Minnesota that kept Baltimore's leage lead at five games. The Milwaukee Brewers, however, won a doubleheader to pull within six games of the . Orioles.
If the Birds want to exacerbate their current case of the Dog Days jitters, they only need to think of how the slipshod Rangers, perhaps the most fundamentally unsound of all contending teams, beat them with subtle inside baseball -- the Oriole kind.
"We're talented, but we don't usually do the little mental things well, but we sure did tonight," said Comer, who, after leaving the University of Minnesota in '76, was unpicked in the free agent draft while 786 others were tapped.
"We've had a lot of problems but it's been a community effort," said the 6-foot-6 Kern who cultivates a madman's mien to go with his 98 mph heater. "We've found a different way to lose every night for a month. We were 9-25 since the All-Star break before tonight."
The Rangers made their typical quotient of diabolical plays this evening. Al Oliver killed a two-on, two-out Ranger rally in the first inning by getting picked off first base by a huge margin. Since the next Ranger hitter, Bell, leading off the subsequent inning homered, it may have cost two runs.
Also, Bell fielded two routine grounders at third and threw both of them against the box seat railing behind first base. Customers were flinching by the ninth. Catcher Jim Sundberg circled under a foul pop, threw his mask on the ground, misjudged the ball by 10 feet, then watched as the pop landed into a double play, they were striking out on smack in his mask. When Texans weren't striking out into double plays they were striking out on three botched sacrifice bunts.
But, uncharacteristically, the Rangers were also making marvelously bright plays that changed the game.
Mickey Rivers, who leaped and dropped a ball at the top of the right center field fence on Monday night, raced to the same spot tonight, jumped 18 inches above the fence and made perhaps the outfield play of the year here to rob Pat Kelly of a homer.
The cerebral chiseling was done by brainy Bump Wills, the second baseman who learned his alertness from father Maury.
In the fourth, Wills anticipated Bell's wild throw and played the railing rebound perfectly to nail Mark Belanger trying to go to second. It saved a run, since the Orioles rallied for their only score off Comer on an Eddie Murray walk and DeCines RBI single.
In the next frame, Wills pulled the gem that had the O's drooling appreciatively. With Birds as the corners, Willis started an inning-ending double play on speedy Al Bumbry by backhanding his chopper and flipping it to second with one motion. His right hand never touched the ball. "If he does anything else, Bumbry beats the relay, the run scores, and we're still playing," said Weaver. "Great play."
Willis' jewels seemed to inspire his mates. The second batter after the double play was Zisk, who hit the first pitch -- a fast ball away -- into the bleachers in the right field corner for a 320-foot opposite field homer.
If that bad luck cost Martinez the defeat, the 14-10 rightly shouldn't complain. The Nicaraguan dug himself five holes in other innings and always escaped, frequently with the Rangers assistance.
"Dennis hasn't pitched badly," said Weaver, knowing Martinez's record is 4-8 since he ran off a 10-game win streak. "But he's been careless quite often."
In other words, the absolute opposite of Comer -- a man whose margin of error is as small as Martinez's is large. If Martinez, 24, is the picture of raw stuff the 6-foot-3, 207-pound Comer 25, looks like a good-natured double-chinned nonathlete.
"I can understand why he was never picked in draft," said Weaver. "You'd have to see him pitch with your own eyes in every league from Class A on up to believe what a winner he is and to sense his poise."
Comer is probably baseball's least likely big leaguer. At age 22 he was working construction when an unlikely five-way succession of telephone calls finally tabbed him as a man the Rangers might sign as batting practice fodder for their pitching-short rookie team in the winter Instructional League.
"At every level, Comer left disbelief behind him. Finally, in spring training '78, Texas Manager Billy Hunter threw him in against the Orioles just to dispel all this foolishness about the mushballer with the 0.90 ERA in the minors.
The first batter, Lee May, crushed a titanic homer. See, what did we tell you, said the chalk players. Comer then struck out the side on nine pitches. Hunter's eyes opened wide. "That's when I decided he was a prospect," said Hunter.
Naturally, Comer's first big league start, last July, was here in Memorial Stadium. He went nine shutout innings and has built a 24-13 career record since. Actually, at 13-8 in '79, he's the Ranger ace for the future.
"Other pitchers can dictate to the hitter," said Comer tonight. "I have to let them dictate to me. I think what pitch they want, then that's the pitch they don't get."
For a becalmed Oriole team that is kicking itself for not capitalizing on the Red Sox pitching woes, Comer was a headach tonight and a body blow to the ego.
"It oughta be against the rules to throw Frisbees," said Oriole Coach Elrod Hendricks.
By Thursday's next game with Texas, even Fergy Jenkins, a 244-game winner, will look good by comparison.