"If we go on to win, this will be something I never forget." -- Earl Weaver, Baltimore Orioles manager
The Baltimore Orioles can be permitted a night of wishful fancy and brave dreams as they fly home to meet the Milwaukee Brewers.
When a team rallies for four runs in the ninth inning to win, 6-5; when it gets three consecutive two-out hits to drive in the last three runs; when it gets the winning RBI on a 0-2 pitch, broken-bat hit that barely floats through the middle of infield, then that club is allowed the indulgence of believing it can do anything.
The Orioles have played 158 games this season and none, according to a consensus, approached this one for last-inning drama, ludicrous improbability or opportune timing.
Reality will arrive soon enough for the Orioles, in the form of the powerful Brewers, whom they will play four times in a space of less than 48 hours, beginning at 5:30 Friday evening with a twinight doubleheader in sold-out Memorial Stadium.
The Orioles' task -- their extremely slim chance for baseball immortality -- is to beat the Brewers four consecutive times to steal the American League East flag. Nothing less than a sweep will do since Milwaukee, after its loss tonight, still leads by three games. One Baltimore loss means elimination. Under no circumstances is a playoff possible. The season-long issue between the Earl's Over-Achievers and The True Blue Brew Crew must and will be decided in Baltimore.
For the record, it is believed that no team ever has won four consecutive head-to-head, season-ending games to capture a division or league pennant. And no Oriole, even at his most delighted tonight, would make more than a token bet that they could.
However, if a team were to do such a thing, then it probably would come into that final series fresh from a whopper of a win just like this one.
All that matters from this game is the taut top of the ninth.
The spoiling Tigers, who had beaten the Orioles four straight times in the previous eight days, including the last two nights, had built a 5-2 lead, finishing starter Mike Flanagan with nobody out in the the fifth, but getting only one run off rookie long reliever John Flinn thereafter.
The Orioles had managed a homer by Cal Ripken in the sixth (No. 27, RBI No. 90), and an RBI single by Ken Singleton in the eighth. But, mostly, what they had managed to do was strand runners all night against right-hander Jack Morris, racking up LOBs in seven of the first eight innings.
When Morris finally left the scene, after loading the bases with none out in the ninth by giving up a single to center to Al Bumbry and back-to-back, full-count walks to Rich Dauer and Singleton, he had put 15 runners on base.
The Orioles, who have, truth to tell, shown plenty of signs of tightness and nerves in all phases of the game in their recent defeats to Detroit, looked like they were going to go down again, impatiently lashing at marginal pitches and stranding runners.
First, hitless Eddie Murray hit a meaningless sacrifice fly to center off rookie left-hander Howard Bailey, who pitched to one batter. Next, Benny Ayala, caught in the left-right switches, had to face right-hander Dave Tobik and fanned weakly.
With two out, up stepped the man who, if there is justice, will be rookie of the year. Ripken got the first of the three clutch singles with a shot through the box and into center, scoring one run and putting men at the corners.
Next came Jim Dwyer who, the night before, had been doubly heroic. With one out and two strikes on him in the ninth, he had ripped what looked like a game-tying double to right, but it hooked foul by two feet. On the next pitch, he duplicated the feat, grounding an RBI double to right, fair by two feet.
This evening, on the first pitch to him, Dwyer came up with a hot shot to right. It tied the score and finished Tobik.
The Tigers called for rookie Dave Rucker, the lefty with two wins and 10 shutout innings against Baltimore in the last two series. On Tuesday, he said, "They'll get me someday, but they'll remember me, too, because of when I beat them."
Rucker will remember pinch hitter Gary Roenicke, the slumper who hasn't homered in 37 games. On an 0-2 fast ball, he broke his bat but dumped a lazy, slow-motion-speed liner into center. The ball barely carried to the outfield grass on the fly as both Alan Trammell and Tom Brookens were a yard too far away and Ripken brought home the winning run.
As a fitting twist, the shoestring-budget Orioles got another victory from a rookie who spent the year at Rochester -- Flinn, the right-hander the Brewers released last winter.
To call the Orioles jubilant would be understatement.
"You have no idea how proud I am of these guys," said Weaver. "It would have been horrible to go home to a sold-out park and have the games mean nothing.
"I wouldn't say we're in a perfect position," added the grinning Weaver, ejected for the 87th time in his career and sixth this season for disputing with Rocky Roe in the fourth over ball-strike calls, "but we got a chance to get it over by Sunday, and in our own park."
"It's been a good year, not a great year," said Roenicke, "and it would have been a shame to go home with that series not meaning anything."
"We didn't win for dignity," said Scott McGregor. "Dignity went out of this pennant race a long time ago. It's just survival now."
"The last game, the one to clinch, is usually the hardest for any team," said Roenicke.
"The corpse came back to life," said General Manager Hank Peters. "We're very much back in it."
That is overstatement, but forgivable. The Orioles cannot fairly make such a claim. Probably, they have just succeeded in giving their exodus a touch of class. However, if, one day hence, after Dennis Martinez and Storm Davis have faced Pete Vuckovich and Mike Caldwell, Peters is still talking thus, then the whole baseball world will be listening.