The New York Yankees relit the fires in their burning competitive heart tonight.
Just when they might have disgraced themselves on alien ground, they summoned their pinstripe pride and played their finest and fiercest baseball in a 4-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
Baseball cannot be played on any higher level than this magnificent affair before 50,434 fans in Memorial Stadium. The decision stopped a streak of four straight head-to-head Baltimore wins and nudged the Yanks' Al East lead back to 3 1/2 games.
Perhaps it was Willie Randolph who set the match to the pilot light in the Yankee oven when he smashed Mike Flanagan's first pitch over the right field fence.
Perhaps it was Reggie Jackson, once more, who was the core of his New York victory. Almost overpowered by Flanagan fast balls, Jackson swallowed his vanity and slugged a two-run homer to the opposite field to help build a 4-1 lead.
And perhaps it was old Tommy John. Winning his 16th game, he allowed a dozen Oriole' base runners in six-plus innings, yet only let two of them score to capture the Yankee spirit of redoubled resolve.
However, the Yankee that those in this standing-room-only crowd will remember longest was reliever Goose Gossage. The human freight train of a pitcher finished this night by striking out Rich Dauer, Al Bumbrey, Ken Singleton, Eddie Murray and Terry Crowley in the last two innings to preserve a one-run lead.
This game was delayed 78 minutes by a smoky, cooling drizzle that gave this ball park, decked in orange-and-black banners, and October ambiance worthy of a World Series. But once it began, it built like a crescendo of sirens until Gossage finally brought the palling silence that accompanies a 100-mile-per-hour fast ball.
The perfect signature of this game was the fact that both first-inning leadoff men-- Randolph and Al Bumbrey -- hit towering opposite-field homers to remove any doubts about the seriousness of the evening's intentions.
Just as last Sunday's Oriole-sweep victory had one climactic moment with Rick Dempsey's down-to-the-last-strike game-tying hit, so this affair had one hairbreadth moment that encapsulated the Yankee return to respectability.
The Orioles loaded their famed late-inning gun in the seventh -- trailing 4-1 -- and almost pulled the trigger.
Bumbrey led off with a double which first baseman Bob Watson should, by all rights, have stopped had he been guarding the line. But he wasn't. John, who had ended four Orioles innings with a pair of Birds stranded, was finally knocked out by his first baseman.
Doug Bird, one of the Yankees' dozen grabbed-for-cash players who has an 0.00 ERA in his last 15 innings, was roughly greeted as Rick Dempsey singled and Ken Singleton hit a sacrifice fly. After fanning Eddie Murray, Bird gave enormous aid and comfort to enemy Birds by walking Gary Roenicke and Terry Crowley to load the bases.
With the crowd standing and the stage set, the Yankees waved for Gossage -- the man the Orioles wrecked in the eighth inning twice last weekend in New York.
Gossage threw like few men have ever thrown.
"Anytime I can put it 'there,'" said Gossage, holding his fingers apart to indicate pinpoint control, "nobody is going to hit me."
"That's as hard as anybody can pitch a baseball," said catcher Rick Cerone who singled in the eventual winning run off loser Flanagan in the fifth.
Yet the Orioles almost tied the game against those blurred heaters -- helped by Yankee ill fortune and their own tenacity.
Pinch hitter Pat Kelly hit Grossage's fourth pitch into the hole toward right field. Willie Randolph, gold glove, would have eaten the sharp grounder to end the game. But he was in the trainer's room, victim of a mid-game muscle pull in his hip.
The scrawny man sprinting then diving, then snagging the ball in his webbing, then scrambling to his knees to throw to first was journeyman Fred Stanley.
For an All-Star like Randolph, the play would have been tough but sure. For Stanley, it was an effort that justified a season's salary.
Then, that trace of "Oriole Magic" entered this game.
Stanley's potential inning-ending throw to first -- ankle-high and a full step ahead of Kelly, was perfectly acceptable, almost routine. In fact, Roenicke, the man who (with two outs) was running from second base, simply stopped when he got to third base and gazed across the diamond at what he thought was another failed O's rally.
Had he run hard, this game might have still been going in the a.m.
Watson, you see, bobbled the ball, dropped it into the dirt, then tried to snatch it back into his glove with his bare hand. After that, he snuck a look at the umpire, who, very belatedly, signaled "safe." Then Watson watched yet another instant in protest.
The third Oriole run had scored on his blunder. But it was the tie run, in Roenick's casual person, that still stood anchored to third base.
That brought to a head this game's best strategic moment, O's Manager Earl Weaver loves to hold back at least one fine pinch hitter for a crisis at the very end of a game. "The trick," he said, "is to keep your gun loaded as long as possible, but don't wait so long that the players on your bench never get their shot to win the ball game for you."
With the bases loaded, two out, Gossage in full heat and the score 4-3, what should Weaver do? Allow glove-magician Mark Belanger, far and away the worst hitter (particularly in the clutch) on his team to face Gossage, or use his last top lefty pinch hitter, John Lowenstein, who beat the Yankees last Friday with a two-run hit off Gossage.
Weaver cogitated, and finally was swayed by Belanger's remarkable 7-for-17 career batting mark against Gossage. For some unexplainable reason, the fragile Blade often hits his best against the world's Gossages and Nolan Ryans.
Belanger, choking the bat and pecking at the Goose's tiny eggs, battled the count to full, even fouling off a pair of two-strike blazers.
The whole crowd of 50,434 stood and screamed -- most trying to unsettle the Goose.
That was a vain hope tonight. Belanger bounced meekly to short; Lowenstein never got to hit with anyone on base. All in all, those bases loaded with stranded runners was a perfect note when Baltimore put 17 men on base and ended five innings with men left in scoring position.
Once Gossage could use his full windup in the eighth and ninth, he was untouchable -- a man truly enjoying humiliating the best hitters on the defending AL champs.
The Yankees were quiet in victory, their tension eased a bit, yet hardly calmed with the prospect of three more games here. It was the O's whose mood was in danger of a shift for the worse.
The Birds pride themselves on smart pitching, but they got dumb pitch-selection from Flanagan and Dempsey tonight. Last Sunday, Flanagan was kayoed by a Jackson RBI hit when he threw the Candy Bar man nine straight fast balls in one at bat.
Tonight, in two at bats, Flanagan threw 10 fast balls in a row. On the 10th, Jackson pealed a scorching liner into the bleachers in the left field corner for his 33rd homer of the year and 402nd of his career.
"Reggie said to me in Yankee Stadium, 'You're getting me out away (with fast balls away) 'cause you can do that here (in New York's left field Death Valley)," said Weaver. "But when I get on the road, I get even.'"
Weaver will also get gray hair from the high fast ball that Flanagan threw on the first pitch to Cerone in the fifth after Bobby Brown reached scoring position with a bunt hit and a steal.
"You don't start a man with a pitch up in his eyes in that spot," growled Weaver. "If (pitching coach George) Bamberger were still here, that would have driven him crazy."
Just a night ago, it was the Yankees who felt the increased weight of every mistake as their lead shrank. Now, it is the Orioles who must feel the pressure of the mounting importance of their final three Yankee games.
Until this late night affair, the Orioles had it all their own way. Now, the Yankees have arrived, circling their wagons around gents named Jackson, John, Randolph and Gossage.
A race that was hot, heretofore, has just reached white heat.