When the pennant fires of September are still five months in the distance, it's hard to sense any particular importance in one baseball game. Yet, in the dugout of a contender, distinctions are made.
The big games come later, but, even in April, there are little big games--corny confidence builders and genuine morale killers.
The Baltimore Orioles, who have been lousy in those kind of momentum games the last two seasons, probably won one of them today, a 3-2 victory over Texas in 14 innings. To be more accurate, the Orioles were given this game. Rookie John Shelby scored the winning run as Ranger shortstop Bucky Dent botched an perfect inning-ending double play grounder.
Everybody needs a gift now and then. Makes you feel like the world is on your side. In a sense, the Orioles deserved to win. They allowed only one single in the last 10 innings, extracting 30 outs from 31 batters. More impressive were 11 strikeouts in six innings of shutout relief by Tippy Martinez and winner Tim Stoddard. Nevertheless, this game was a Texas gift.
For 3 hours 33 minutes, the Orioles tried to avoid winning. The only two Texas runs, way back in the first inning off razor-sharp Jim Palmer, were unearned because of an error by Leo Hernandez. Thereafter, the Orioles minimized every opportunity.
In all, 13 Orioles came to the plate with runners in scoring position in seven different innings and nobody delivered an RBI. Baltimore's only runs off starter Jon Matlack came when Cal Ripken Jr. killed a rally by grounding into a third-inning double play, and when Benny Ayala (who owns Matlack) homered over the 360-foot sign in left to tie the game in the sixth.
So when singles by Shelby and Dan Ford put runners at the corners with one out in the 14th, the crowd of 10,411 reacted with trepidation.
On the first pitch from loser Odell Jones, Ripken hit directly to Dent a grounder Texas Manager Doug Rader called "made to order" for a double play.
The crowd groaned, knowing Dent's steady reputation on such routine plays. Suddenly, the crowd roared in surprise. The ball took a baby bad hop, hit the heel of Dent's glove, bounced off his chest and fell at his feet.
So nicely tuned are baseball's checks and balances that, in that instant, the game ended. Dent recovered quickly and threw to second for the force, but the double play was dead. The sliding Ford obliterated Mike Richardt before he could throw to first, knocking the second baseman dizzy for several minutes, and Shelby scored the winning run.
This game was important for the Orioles in several hard-to-define ways. First, it washed away the sour taste of an 11-2 loss the night before in which the Orioles made four errors and allowed a staggering nine unearned runs; in '82, the Orioles were the only team in baseball that didn't lose a game on an unearned run all season. Had they lost this game, also on unearned runs, it would have been an ill omen to begin a 10-day trip to the West Coast.
Also, this victory, improving their first-place record to 8-5, gave the Orioles a series win over the Rangers and also finished off a stylish 5-2 home stand; a series loss to the lowly Texans and a 4-3 home stand would have been a letdown.
"We had a lot of games like this the last couple of years--the rubber game of a series, or the last game of a home stand--and it sure seemed like we found ways to lose a lot of them," said veteran Mike Flanagan. " . . . If we'd lost this one, with the pitching we got, and all the men we left on base (13), it would have hurt."
But, unlike '81 and '82, the Orioles didn't.
Thanks to Dent, the Orioles could crow about all their signs of health.
Shelby, hitting .444, got three more hits and showed good instinct going first to third on Ford's 14th-inning bloop--a hit on which many runners would have cautiously held up at second. "He's a player, gents," said his manager, Joe Altobelli.
Ken Singleton, recovered from a pulled back muscle, almost ended the game in the 13th when his right-handed drive off Frank Tanana hit two feet from the top of the 14-foot wall in left for a triple. Only a stiff left-to-right wind kept the ball in the park.
Palmer threw 89 pitches in eight innings, looked as fast and precise as in '82 and kept his season ERA through 13 innings at a clean 0.00. Martinez, usually a poor spring pitcher, struck out seven men in four innings of hellacious curve balling and allowed only one soft single; Stoddard, now pitching from a stretch at all times, never had better control or a tougher slider as he retired all six men he faced, striking out four.
Both relievers credited Altobelli's arrival, and, thus indirectly, Earl Weaver's departure, for their improvement; both praised Altobelli's decision to give them more work in Florida and fewer warmups during the season, never warming up both of them at the same time.
"He shows confidence in us," said Martinez. "He'll bring you right back the day after you've done poorly. And he lets us start innings fresh, instead of waiting to bring you in with the bases loaded, when there's no margin for error."
The Orioles allowed only 12 earned runs in the home stand and haven't walked a man in 27 innings. With the notable exception of Dennis Martinez, the whole staff is several weeks ahead of customary Oriole schedule.
"Oh, don't tell Rabbit (pitching coach Ray Miller)," said Altobelli. "I won't even want to sit next to him on the plane (to California). That's all he'll talk about."