When a 33-year-old with a mediocre career record of 78-79 entering the season can win 14 straight games, hurl three perfect innings in the All-Star game and reel off 17 wins in 18 decisions, why shouldn't he top it all off by winning his 20th game on a night when he comes within five outs of a no-hitter?
So, tonight, just a mile from Disneyland, Steve Stone continued his incredible season in Fantasyland by beating the California Angels, 5-2, for his first 20-win year as the Baltimore Orioles stayed 2 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees, who beat Seattle, 3-1.
Stone, 20-4 this season and 25-4 since the '79 All-Star break, walked just two men and fanned six while allowing no hits for 7 1/2 innings.
Then, just as a new plateau of poetic improbability seemed within his grasp, Stone began struggling with his control -- trying to throw only perfect pitches as he sensed yet another notch in his journeyman-to-superstar transformation.
He walked Bobby Grich and Larry Harlow (both ex-Orioles) on full-count pitches, then game up a clean line single to Campy Campaneris that skipped 10 feet behind second base. That RBI hit was followed by another by pinch-hitter Dan Ford, who dropped a soft line single into center.
Stone, who beat the New York Yankees in his last two outings on a seven-hitter and two-hitter, came out of the game then, having seen his streak of hitless innings over two games ended at 12. Tippy Martinez relieved in glamerous style, fanning Bob Clark and Rod Carew to end the jam.
Stone, who never won more than 15 games before this season, is now 18-1 since May. He lowered his ERA to 2.98 and increased his amazing turnabout record in two years as an Oriole to 31-11.
In all Baltimore's storied history of great hurlers, none has ever won his 20th game this early in the year, Dave McNally being the previous early Bird on August 25, 1970
Stone's heroics, backed by solo homers by Eddie Murray, Doug DeCinces and Dan Graham, plus Martinez' ninth save, were necessary in this pennant chase as New York won.
"How long have you been waiting for this?" asked DeCinces as he poured champagne over Stone's head.
"Ten years," said Stone, "and it sure feels good."
"And how many more starts have you got?" asked Ken Singleton, knowing the answer is 11.
"Steve looks like he doesn't think he's ever going to lose another game," said Mark Belanger, a bit incredulous.
"I thought about a no-hitter as soon as I saw that big round zero on the scoreboard about the second inning," said Stone.
"It's uncanny the confidence he has," said Coach Ray Miller. "He came in here today with 36 bottles of champagne, hands them to the clubhouse boy and says, 'Ice 'em up, Kid.'
"Now that's a guy who doesn't expect to lose. I've seen pitchers who got stuck on 19 and winning the 20th really became a phobia. Steve just buzzed through it."
"Actually," said Stone of the liner that broke up his no-hitter, "I thought Bumbry had a chance for it."
Bumbry, of course, had the ball bounce at least 100 feet in front of him.
"The only thing I was worried about," said Stone, "is that champagne doesn't travel well. I carted it all the way to Anaheim and I didn't want to take it to Oakland, too."
And so, not wanting to waste the moment, Stone emptied a bottle of Paul Masson's finest over his own head.
Steve Stone, a grape who worried for years that his time would never come, had finally proved to be a vintage wine.
Stone and his Oriole teammates could hardly have started more methodically and efficiently toward bringing the 33-year-old right-hander a 20th victory.
The lighthearted curve baller with the suddenly fierce concentration and confidence retired the first 10 Angels he faced, fanning four (three looking) and getting five on grounders to the left side.
When Stone finally got a bit too fine, walking Rod Carew on four pitches in the fourth, he forced Carney Lansford to ground into a short-to-second-to-first inning-ending double play on which shortstop Mark Belanger stuck with a tough, hard first hop.
While Stone was at his sharpest -- throwing fast balls past hitters and leaving them gaping at his curve -- the Birds scored single runs in the first, fourth and fifth innings for a 3-0 lead against rookie Freddie Martinez.
The first man to identify the mystery right-hander was Murray, who hit the second pitch of the second inning for a 410-foot homer to right center, well over the 386-foot sign, for his 21st home run. Murray, raised in nearby Los Angelos, had a .340 career average against California coming into this game.
Murray, who has hit .346 since the All-Star break, with 25 RBI, started the Orioles pecking again in the third with a first-pitch single to right.
Murray stole second against Dan Whitmer, yet another of the Angels' terrible catchers, who have allowed 103 thefts in 136 attempts. That extra base meant a run as Terry Crowley singled Murray to third. He scored on Dan Graham's grounder to second base.
A third run arrived on a two-out Bumbry single in the fifth, a Rich Dauer wald and a vicious knee-high liner to right by Singleton that ex-Oriole Larry Harlow -- always a liability on hard-running catches -- butchered for a run-scoring error.