These are the times that create baseball fans.
Or, in the case of Washingtonians, create Baltimore Orioles fans.
These are tough days for folks who keep telling themselves how much they miss the old Washington Senators. And hate the drive to Memorial Stadium.
Friday, Aug. 19, the Orioles swept a doubleheader from the Kansas City Royals. In the opener, they trailed, 4-0, and were being no-hit by Gaylord Perry before scoring two runs in the eighth and three in the ninth after two were out. In the nightcap, the Orioles trailed in the sixth, then won in the eighth.
Wednesday and Thursday, the Orioles performed two of the most exhilarating escape acts any fan will ever see. Trying desperately to stay a half-game behind league-leading Milwaukee, the Orioles staged three thrilling last-gasp comebacks in two games. Twice, they won after trailing in the 10th inning, and once they scored twice to tie after being down to their last out in the ninth.
The Orioles survived with game-deciding balls ticking off Toronto gloves both nights; with an infielder at catcher and two outfielders in the infield; with a relief pitcher who hadn't picked off a runner since 1977, trapping three straight runners off first base in the 10th.
"After last night, tonight's game didn't even seem exciting," said Orioles Manager Joe Altobelli, trying to keep from laughing Thursday night.
The Toronto Blue Jays were so devastated by their first taste of pennant-race despair they locked the press out of their clubhouse for 15 minutes, then, when a few reporters ventured in, chased them out, waving bats so they could have another 10 minutes to practice their oh-this-didn't-hurt-so-bad platitudes.
Were the old Nats really as much pleasure to follow as these Orioles?
The Orioles seem a particularly apt club for Washingtonians to study because they are so difficult to decipher and predict, a club full of nuances and shades and moods, a team that wins in mysterious half-realized ways. Washington likes to think itself subtle. Well, the Orioles are so subtle they confuse themselves. Seldom does an excellent team spend so much time scratching its own head.
For instance, for a team in a slump, the Orioles sure seem happy.
Nothing in the Orioles' season of improbabilities seems odder than a winning streak in the midst of a colossal team batting slump. Over the previous 19 games before last night's 9-0 win over Minnesota, the Orioles have batted .217 and scored a paltry 3.52 runs per game. Yet, the team had won nine of its previous 12.
If a team can rank second in the league in ERA (3.69) in a season when Jim Palmer has two victories, Dennis Martinez is 6-14, Mike Flanagan misses 15 starts and Tim Stoddard has a 5.68 ERA, then why can't it play .750 ball for two weeks while its bats are in the deep freeze?
Of all things in baseball, few are rarer than a team coming from behind to win after the seventh inning; statistics show that such rallies occur only 8 percent of the time. Yet, in the last month, the Orioles have won six such games (and 10 for the season).
And that doesn't include The Wonder of Chicago a fortnight ago. That day, umpires called back an apparent two-run Carlton Fisk homer, ruling a fan had reached over the fence for his catch. An hour later, with the bases loaded with Chisox and nobody out in the ninth, Stoddard struck out Fisk and Tom Paciorek, then retired Greg Luzinski to save a 2-1 victory that seemed as incredible at the time as this week's dispensations from defeat.
"We're hitting terrible and we're winning," says Rich Dauer.
"What happens when we start playing well?" asks Jim Dwyer.
No Oriole knows the day when they can, once more, rely on muscle rather than magic for their wins. But they can't wait.
After all, during the last 20 games of July, the Orioles batted .308, slugged .501, scored 6.35 runs a game and won 16 of 20; so far in August, the same paradoxical lineup has batted .230, slugged .353 and scored 3.67 runs a game.
The Orioles' atrocious leadoff men, Al Bumbry and John Shelby, who have a pathetic .304 on-base percentage this year, have drawn four walks this month. These undisciplined cads have only 35 walks in 536 at bats, less than half the minimum requirement for their job.
For those who think they understand baseball, the Orioles are a walking slap in the face.
* They lead the majors in home runs, yet are ninth in the AL in runs.
* The Orioles, built for Memorial Stadium, have the best road record in the league; despite protests about Altobelli's lack of strategic finesse, they have the AL's best mark in one and two-run games: 31-24.
* The Orioles are weak against left-handed pitching, yet they have the best record against southpaws (19-16) of the five AL East contenders. Toronto, Milwaukee and New York are losers against lefties.
* Between Leo Hernandez and Todd Cruz the Orioles have made more errors at third than any team, but they lead the AL in fielding.
* The Orioles have three of the top six AL starters in ERA; that doesn't include resident Cy Young winners, Palmer or Flanagan.
For those fascinated by every twist of the long season, the next 10 days should be rich in possibilities. The last Orioles' batting tear, in July, coincided with a few days exposure to the pathetic pitching staff of the California Angels, plus a few days vacation against the arms that reside in Oakland and Seattle.
Before Baltimore returns to East play Sept. 5, the Orioles have six games against the Minnesota Twins, possessors of baseball's highest team ERA (4.77): last night the Orioles pounded the Twins' only outstanding pitcher, Ken Schrom. The Orioles have two games in K.C. against the No. 11 in ERA Royals and two games in Toronto against the Blue Jays' least impressive starters, Jim Gott and winless Doyle Alexander.