The Baltimore Orioles inexorably ground that magic number down to two tonight as Cal Ripken got four hits in a 4-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Ripken's sixth four-hit game since July 20 matched the total of the Brewers, held in check by Scott McGregor (18-6) and Sammy Stewart, who earned his seventh save.
McGregor retired the first 12 batters and had a one-hitter through six innings. He gave up two hits and a run in the seventh, then lost command completely in the eighth as a single and two walks filled the bases with none out.
In came Stewart, after a laughable delay in which he needed help to unzip his jacket. Stewart got the last six outs while facing only five batters, with Milwaukee's last run scoring on Paul Molitor's double-play grounder.
"I like those jackets in this cold weather up here, but I thought I was in a straitjacket," Stewart said. "I just wanted to throw strikes with the bases loaded and give somebody a chance to help. They hit it sharp, but right at somebody."
"I felt great for seven innings, then I fell out of sync a bit and it slipped away a little," said McGregor, who is 14-1 on the road. "But Sammy was just great."
The Orioles got three runs in the second inning off starter Bob Gibson, with the bottom of the order contributing two doubles.
John Lowenstein walked and stayed at first through two fly-ball outs. Then Rich Dauer, the No. 8 batter, lined a double into the left-field corner. Cal Ripken Sr., the third base coach, gave Lowenstein a belated stop sign, but Lowenstein chose to run through it and scored without a play when left fielder Mark Brouhard threw the ball over the head of shortstop Robin Yount.
"I glanced back and saw the throw wasn't coming to third, so I kept on going," Lowenstein said. "If he'd thrown toward me, I wouldn't have taken the chance."
Rick Dempsey, No. 9 in the lineup, followed with a double into the gap in left-center, scoring Dauer, and it became 3-0 when Al Bumbry grounded a single up the middle.
Baltimore's fourth run came in the seventh against reliever Rick Waits. Dempsey led off with an infield single and took third when pinch hitter Tito Landrum, after two foul bunts, singled to right-center. Ripken brought Dempsey home with a single to left for his 97th RBI.
Ripken's four hits gave him 198, bringing him as close to the coveted 200 figure as the Orioles are to the AL East pennant. With a .315 average, Ripken is having a tremendous sophomore season.
"Two hundred would be a nice number to hit," Ripken said. "A while ago it seemed far out of reach, but now maybe I can do it. I've been concentrating very well at bat and I'm not wasting at bats the way I sometimes did before.
"I'm talking about times where I'd take two pitches and then be so anxious I'd swing at one over my head. When you do get one or two hits, maybe you loosen up a bit and it makes it a little easier to get some more. Whatever it is, I hope they keep coming."
A gala pennant-clinching party is set for Baltimore-Washington International Airport when the Orioles return at about 7 p.m. Sunday. But the players know they cannot afford to relax.
"A lot of people are congratulating us already, but we have to go get them," McGregor said. "You never know what will happen."
Asked by a Milwaukee writer if he preferred clinching the title here as revenge for last year, when the Brewers took first place by beating Baltimore on the last day of the season, Ripken said, "I don't think Milwaukee makes any difference just because we lost it last year. We want to get it as soon as we can and we would have liked to have had it in Detroit."
The Brewers, four games ahead at this stage a year ago, fell 14 1/2 behind as their September record slipped to 6-16. Nevertheless, a crowd of 38,096 watched in 48-degree weather, boosting Milwaukee's season's attendance to 2,264,470.
The Orioles have won 10 of 11 against Milwaukee this season, obviously a major factor in the Brewers' embarrassing fifth-place status.