"When's Opening Day?" said Mike Flanagan after beating Minnesota, 11-4, today in Memorial Stadium. "October 4th? I'll be ready."
The American League playoffs will start Oct. 4, and it's hard for the Baltimore Orioles not to think about the cool glories of autumn on these stifling August days. So many things have gone right for the Orioles in so short a time that they almost have difficulty keeping up with their good fortune.
This afternoon, Flanagan worked six creditable innings for a victory just a few hours after Jim Palmer had allowed only three tame singles in seven innings while winning Saturday. "Palmer and Flanagan win back-to-back," Ray Miller, the pitching coach, said with a grin. "Let 'em read about that in Milwaukee and New York and Detroit."
"Now, everybody else in the division has to watch us," said Ken Singleton as the Orioles' lead in the East Division stayed at 1 1/2 games over Milwaukee.
As recently as Friday night, Baltimore was doing the chasing. Now, the Orioles not only are in front but have leads of three, three, five and seven games in the loss column over Milwaukee, Detroit, New York and fast-fading Toronto.
"Give us a third baseman and a right-handed short reliever and we'll rule the world for the next two or three years, just like the Oakland A's did (a decade ago)," crowed team owner Edward Bennett Williams after watching his club score 25 runs and bat .358 during a three-game sweep of the pitching-poor Twins.
"Just like old times," Palmer said with a grin to Flanagan in the clubhouse.
"Noooo, not yet," Flanagan said, laughing, meaning that his left knee was still far from strong after allowing five hits, four runs and two homers.
"Eleven runs?" retorted Palmer, who has teased Flanagan for years that the team will score only for the popular left-hander and not for him.
Any Orioles pitcher would have relished this game's combination of 13 hits and three brutal goofs by the Twins that led to a pair of four-run innings. Eddie Murray and Dan Ford each had three RBI and John Lowenstein, with only one homer in 10 weeks, drove a 420-foot shot 25 rows up in the right field bleachers off loser Bobby Castillo.
Baltimore's ailing Cy Youngs, who have missed 35 starts this year, aren't themselves yet. Flanagan and Palmer call this their "second spring training" and would be delighted if, two weeks from now, they were as sharp as they usually are in April. But they're back in the rotation after being on the disabled list, able to throw 100 pitches without pain, and their presence and finesse add a world of professional stability to a team that, Flanagan says, is "coming on." Palmer adds, "And at the right time."
"Recently, we've won some games we shouldn't have. Everybody says we're an unemotional team, but wins like that pick everybody up," said Flanagan. "When you see somebody who's as under control as John Lowenstein jumping up and down all over the place, it renews your faith in the game we all played in Little League. It doesn't have to be cut and dried. It's still human."
The Orioles have won 12 of 15 after escaping the pit of a seven-game losing streak. They are the only contender in the AL East with no one on the disabled list.
Their team ERA over the last 16 games is 2.36. While other teams search for a fourth and fifth starter, the Orioles have seven. After a three-inning save today by Sammy Stewart, the bullpen's ERA is 2.32 for the past six weeks.
This weekend's demolition of the Twins was impressive in its swift authority. In the first two games, the Orioles leaped ahead, 9-0 and 4-0. When the Twins had the audacity to score two runs in the second inning today, one on Kent Hrbek's 400-foot home run, the Orioles responded with four runs in the same inning off Castillo. When Gary Gaetti hit a two-run homer in the sixth to cut Flanagan's margin to 5-4, the Orioles rallied for four more runs.
"If we'd made two (defensive) plays, it would have been a different game," said Twins Manager Billy Gardner. "They led to eight runs."
The first vital play came in the second inning with the score tied, 2-2. Castillo had already allowed a first-pitch-of-the-game triple to Al Bumbry and a long homer by Lowenstein. Now, he had the bases loaded with two outs after an intentional walk to Bumbry.
Ford hit a hard grounder behind third that Gaetti backhanded, dropped out of his glove, then accidentally kicked 10 yards as two runs scored; it was the scratchiest of hits. Bumbry eventually scored on a bases-loaded walk to Murray.
In the sixth, with the Orioles' margin just 5-4, Gardner again ordered a free pass to Ford to get to Cal Ripken. On came rookie sidearmer Mike Walters, who got Ripken to smash an ideal double-play grounder to John Castino near second.
Castino backhanded the ball, started toward second, then began falling apart. He lost his balance, tried to shovel the ball to the shortstop, then fell on his face as the wild toss trickled away.
Instead of the inning ending, a run was home. Two pitches later, the game was history. Murray singled in two runs and Roenicke lofted another single for a 9-4 lead.
The last time the Twins were here, in May, they outscored the Orioles, 25-9, and swept a three-game series. Afterward, Castillo reportedly got a broom and swept off the dugout steps to symbolize the occasion. The Orioles didn't forget. A week later, they knocked out and beat Castillo in Minnesota. This weekend, they returned the sweep by a 25-7 margin and beat Castillo again.
You don't tweak the beak of the team with the best record in baseball.