The camera lights and the crush of reporters around him made Beningo Felix Ayala so nervous that his eyes were fluttering like a cornered bird's. This silent, meditative, stylish man does not like to be exposed to view; he knows he's the Baltimore Orioles' "secret weapon" and, as such, wisely stays in the shadows.
"I stay quiet," murmured Ayala, after his two-run, eighth-inning, pinch-hit double had beaten the California Angels, 8-7, tonight in Memorial Stadium. "When I get up there with the game on the line, by the time you find out who I am, and what I can do, it may be too late."
Thanks to Ayala's hard-hit, one-out liner to left-center off losing left-hander Andy Hassler, the Orioles--one of the worst late-inning teams in baseball thus far this season--finally erupted for the kind of comeback that ignites pennant pushes.
Until this complex evening, full of managerial brainstorming, the Orioles had trailed entering the eighth inning on 28 occasions this season. They had not come back to win once. And, as first baseman Eddie Murray said, "You can't have a first-place club if you can't come back."
"This is just the kind of game we need to get us going. And it's just the kind we haven't been getting," said reliever Tippy Martinez, who arrived with two out in the ninth, Angels on the corners and Reggie Jackson up.
Two curve balls later, Jackson had flied out mildly to left, Martinez had a save, fellow reliever Sammy Stewart had a shaky victory and Baltimore remained only five games out of first place in a generous American League East race that seems to be begging them to wake up and make a run.
"I just have to go down and see 'em," said team owner Edward Bennett Williams. "We had wins like this in '79 and '80 . . . But sometimes I think I bought a team in the wrong sport. When 60 or so losses a year is a great season, it sure feels like there's a lot of agony vis-a-vis the ecstasy."
In a season of almost constant aggravations, this night before a cheering crowd of 20,580 was one for, if not ecstasy, then at least cautious optimism.
The Orioles trailed early, 2-0, then took the lead, 5-2, thanks to a homer by John Lowenstein in the fourth and a four-run fifth that finished starter Ken Forsch. However, the Orioles--just 10-10 their last 20 games--helped the Angels to a five-run seventh as starter Mike Flanagan was shelled and Stewart did little better.
This time, the Orioles' rebuttal did not fall a run shy. In the eighth, Murray singled and Lowenstein doubled him home with a line drive off the fence in right-center, cutting the deficit to 7-6.
Finally, in the eighth, Baltimore accepted California's largesse as reliever Doug Corbett walked pinch hitter Terry Crowley and Hassler walked pinch hitter Gary Roenicke. Having set the table with free passes, the Angels made their biggest blunder. Manager Gene Mauch let Hassler pitch to Ayala, who is five for 11 with seven RBI as a pinch hitter, even though he had right-handed reliever Bruce Kison warm.
Ayala hit a low-and-in 2-2 fast ball off the 376-foot sign on a couple of skidding hops as both runners scored standing.
"Somebody was makin' all the right moves tonight," chuckled Williams, presumably meaning manager-in-exile Earl Weaver.
Had the Orioles lost, they would have looked back on two inning-ending double plays grounded into by Rich Dauer, both times with the bases full. And, they'd have remembered how Stewart, inheriting a 5-3 lead with two on and none out in the seventh, had, before the Angel firestorm subsided, allowed a two-run, game-tying double to Brian Downing and a two-run, bases-loaded single through the box to Jackson.
The Orioles even would have remembered other nagging things: Cal Ripken Jr., errorless in 73 chances at shortstop this season, forgetting to cover third, and nine Oriole outs coming with men in scoring position.
However, Ayala let the Birds dream on kinder thoughts: Lowenstein's single, double and homer; Murray's three hits; Ripken's two ringing doubles, one to each alley. Ripken's first double missed being a homer to left by a foot while the second, to right on an 0-2 pitch, drove in two runs with the bases loaded.
Even Floyd Rayford, forced in for defense in the ninth by all the wild pinch hitting, knocked down Joe Ferguson's leadoff smash over the bag, did a 180-degree spin, recovered the ball and threw out Ferguson at first.
When Stewart later gave up a two-out walk and single before Martinez arrived, that Rayford play got larger.
"That ball tried to beat me to death," said Rayford. "All I can say is, 'Nice work, feet.' "
And nice work Benigno Ayala.