There is only one thing left for the New York Yankees to do: pray for a strike.
It isn't even June yet, but after Terry Crowley's two-out, bases-loaded single in the ninth had given the Baltimore Orioles a 6-5 victory tonight and a three-game sweep, Yankee Manager Gene Michael had to admit concern.
"I got to worry when a club is hot like they are," said Michael. "You always worry about a team getting too far in front."
If losing three straight here wasn't enough to worry Michael, add another tirade by Yankee Owner George Steinbrenner to his woes and it is easy to understand.
Following tonight's three hours of Masterpiece Theatre, the O's are 27-14, winners of 13 of their last 16. The Yankees are 23-19, and even Goose Gossage could not save them from a third straight loss, before 42,869 in steamy Memorial Stadium.
Usually, if the Yankees can get Gossage into a game with a lead, or even tied, they feel confident they will win. Tonight, they did that, thanks to a three-run, eighth-inning rally that wiped out a 5-2 Baltimore lead built largely on the strength of a pair of two-run homers by Doug DeClinces.
After Graig Nettles' two-strike, two-run single off Tippy Martinez had tied the game with two out in the eighth, Michael called for Gossage, who had given up one earned run in 19 2/3 innings this season.
Gossage got the Orioles in the eighth, but not the ninth. With one out, Rich Dauer singled up the middle. Up came Jim Dwyer, who had run for Ken Singleton in the seventh and stayed in as a defensive replacement. If any observers were second-guessing Oriole Manager Earl Weaver for that move, they stopped quickly.
Dwyer slammed Gossage's fast ball into the right field corner and, even though Reggie Jackson played the ball in quickly enough to hold Dwyer to a single, Dauer went to third. Eddie Murray was walked intentionally.
The infield came in and John Lowenstein hit for Gary Roenicke. On a 3-2 pitch, Lowenstein grounded to second base. Willie Randolph threw to the plate to force pinch runner Bob Bonner.
Two outs now and up came Crowley. He had been Tuesday's hero with two home runs. Now, another chance.
"He had thrown me a breaking pitch in the eighth," Crowley said. "But in that situation I knew he would come with his best pitch. I just thought fast ball."
Gossage threw four fast balls. The last one, a 2-1 pitch, Crowley lined into right field for his fourth game-winning hit of the season. Gossage shrugged and walked to the dugout. The Orioles streamed out of theirs to congratulate tonight's hero who -- naturally -- had to come out of the dugout to take a bow for the fans.
"Gossge got behind and he had to put the ball in the strike zone," Crowley said. "I think he got a little bit more of the plate than he wanted to."
"Yeah, I threw it a little too good," Gossage said. "I'm not going to alibi -- they beat us tonight, that's all. They've got a good ball club. We're in a slump right now. We could have used this game. It was 5-5, we had a shot. We didn't do it."
Like the second game of this series -- which drew 124,464, an Oriole record for a midweek series -- the Yankees had plenty of chances tonight.
They loaded the bases with one out in the third and Rick Cerone grounded into a double play. Cerone hit into another double play in the eighth just before the rally that tied the game. And in the ninth they got three hits and no runs because Randolph lined into a double play after twice failing to bunt Bucky Dent over to second.
Those things happen when a team is going poorly. And when a team is hot like the Orioles, the hit-and-run works efficiently, as it did in the third when Dauer drove in DeCinces with the game's first run. A guy like DeCinces, homerless until last Saturday, has three two-home run games in a six-game period.
After DeCinces had taken starter Rudy May over the left center field wall for a 3-0 Oriole lead in the fourth, Michael decided not to give DeCinces another shot at May with one out and Benny Ayala on first in the sixth.
By now it was 3-2, O's, Dent's two-run homer off Mike Flanagan in the fifth having given the Yankees some life. Michael had a decision to make. Should he play percentages and bring in righty Ron Davis to face DeCinces? s
Tuesday night, Michael had gone with rookie Gene Nelson one batter too long and Crowley launched the three-run homer that decided the game. Michael went for Davis.
Davis threw two balls to DeCinces. Then he made a big mistake: he threw a strike. DeCinces hit a line drive similar to the one in the fourth, only this rocket went the other way, to right center. The Orioles were leading, 5-2, and Steinbrenner sat shaking his head, glaring toward his dugout.
Surprisingly, the Yankees weren't finished. In the eighth Lou Piniella singled with two outs, Dave Winfield got an infield hit and Jackson walked on a 3-2 pitch. That was all for Flanagan. Tim Stoddard came in and walked pinch hitter Oscar Gamble, making it 5-3.
Exit Stoddard, enter Martinez. He almost had Nettles struck out twice but the third baseman hung in and sliced a single to left to tie the game.
Nettles hung in but eventually the Yankees hanged themselves. After Rodriguez, making his first major league start at first base, saved them in the eighth by recovering Piniella's overthrow and throwing out Rick Dempsey at the plate, they had their opportunity in the ninth.
But their $20 million man, Winfield, grounded to shortstop with two outs and the go-ahead run at third base. That left it up to Crowley, who will probably make less in his career than Winfield will make this year.
Which is why the rich Yankees had their heads down as they departed, and even the specter of the strike couldn't dampen the Orioles' joy.
"It won't matter if we play Friday, Sunday or July 6. All things will be the same," Weaver said.
If so, it will be a long, hot summer in the Bronx.