The Baltimore Orioles will have a long and bitter coast-to-coast flight in the wee hours of this morning, thinking about all that might have been except for the Seattle Mariners -- the worst team in baseball.
For the second consecutive night, the Birds lost to the Mariners just as the scoreboard informed them that they had the opportunity to move into first place as New York floundered against Oakland.
This evening's 2-1 defeat in the Kingdom was one of the most brutal body blows of the season for the Orioles.
Going to the bottom of the ninth, they were tied, 1-1, but had to be in an unsettled frame of mind after watching themselves get robbed of three runs by Seattle gloves. Also fresh in their minds was the second awful base running blunder by well-roaming seldom-thinking Eddie Murray, who wandered past third on an infield force out in the top of the ninth and killed a first-and-third rally when he was trapped off base.
All these threads of drama came to a sudden conclusion as the Mariners' one true quality hitter, Bruce Bochte, hit Scott McGregor's pitch into the second deck in right field for a game-winning homer.
As that leadoff blast -- only the seventh hit off McGregor -- was still rising over the second baseman's head, the Orioles already had turned their backs and were gathering up stray equipment for a quick exodus. tThey knew from the sound of the bat.
It remains to be seen if this night will be heralded the beginning of an end to the Bird's torrid play for the past 10 weeks. On June 15, they clobbered Seattle lefty Floyd Bannister and have played 47-19 ball thereafter until tonight.
This night, they met Bannister again, but this time he beat them on just four hits, getting 14 outs from the last 15 batters he faced.
If Bochte's homer is this games's most vivid memory, then the next most painful will be the Orioles' failure in the top of the ninth.
Murray led off with a ringing double off the wall in right-center. At least he didn't try to stretch it into a triple as he did the night before when he was thrown out at third to kill a really.
Next, Bennie, Ayala hit a scorched liner over the third base bag. In earlier innings it would have been a double. But converted shortstop Jim Anderson, guarding the line, dove full length and made a diving grab to steal a run. That play was matching masterpiece for an earlier outfield grab by Leon Roberts that stole a two-run double from Rich Dauer. Then came Murray's blunder. And a long plane flight indeed.
After an international walk, Dempsey hit a routine grounder to third that resulted in a force. Second baseman Julio Cruz had no chance for an inning-ending double play at first after Gary Roenicke's excellent take-out slide. But he did have a shot at Murray, who had rounded third too far. Cruz's throw was off line and almost wild, but still nailed Murray by six feet.
The Birds may have finished this road trip 6-2, and gained two games on the Yankees in the process as the Bombers stumbled to 4-4 in the West. But, after the evil memories of the past two nights in the homely Dome, only time will tell if the Birds return home strengthened or psychologically weakened.
"Even their bad plays worked out well," Mark Belanger said. "Cruz forgot how many outs there were. That's why he trapped Murray off third. He thought the inning was over, then saw Eddie too far off third and got him."
Other Orioles thought Cruz just didn't have what it took to face up to Roenicke's spikes and finish the double play. Then, for his avoidance of duty, he was rewarded with an inning-ending out.
"I thought the throw had gone to first base," Murray said.
"It don't matter what anybody thought," growled Earl Weaver, "Eddie should never have taken his eye off the ball on that play. Somewhere in our organization, he's been taught that. It's fundamental. There's no excuse for it.
"This was a good trip," Weaver summarized. "But it could have been a great, great trip."
"Let's not be greedy," Singleton said. "We made up two games in eight days. That's reasonable."
That ended what had been an even and tense duel between two classy but sharpy contrasting southpaws -- McGregor (15-7) and Bannister (7-10).
The Birds, who have won 32 of 46 since the All-Star game and have gone 37-15 on West Coast trips since the start of the '78 season, were the first to draw blood. Rick Dempsey jumped on a first-pitch fast ball for a leadoff double over third base in the fifth, took third as Kiko Garcia grounded to second, then scored on Mark Belanger's pool-cue single to center off the end of the bat as he lunged for a curve that fooled him.
Then the O's almost broke this game open. Al Bumbry, on a 19-for-49 tear (.388), got a gift single when his sharp, potential double-play grounder went under the glove of tangle-footed shortstop Larry Milbourne. Rich Dauer -- even hotter, hitting .356 for the past month -- smashed what ought to have been a two-run double to deepest left-center.
But determined Roberts made one of the longest runs any left fielder will ever make and stabbed the ball at the last instant on the dead run and came to a stop in dead center near the 410-foot sign. He seemed almost conncally out of position -- a fan could go a lifetime and never see a left fielder make a play so far into center. The O's didn't think funny when Singleton flied out to end the threat. With that so uncharacteristic defensive support, Bannister retired the next 11 Birds through the end of the Baltimore eighth.
McGregor had his first serious trouble in the sixth when the Mariners, 9-34 since the All-Star break, tied the game, 1-1. Cruz, perhaps atoning for his earlier pickoff, tripled into the right field corner to lead off. Excellent outfielding might have held the fleet Cruz to a double, but Singleton disappeared into the corner long enough to address, post and mail a letter.
McGregor, who secretly saves his best fast balls until just such situations, got Bill Stein to fly to shallow right where Singleton made a fine on-the-run throw to the plate to hold Cruz.
Then, McGregor almost fanned Bocht on a borderline 2-2 pitch changeup. But he didn't get the call and Bochte slapped a full-count fast ball to left for a routine game-tying sacrifice fly.