Day by day another ember burns out on the Baltimore Orioles' season fire. As the strike deadline gets closer, Toronto moves farther and farther ahead.
Tonight, the last-place Cleveland Indians laser-beamed 16 hits, knocked Orioles starter Mike Boddicker out in a season-worst 1 1/3 innings and beat the Orioles, 10-4, before 9,441 in a cavernous echo chamber called Municipal Stadium.
The first-place Blue Jays won today, their 10th victory in 11 games. The Orioles are now 13 1/2 games out of first place. Their numbers grow less impressive with each day. The Orioles have lost five full games in the standings to the streaking Blue Jays over the past 12 days. Earl Weaver's second lease on his Orioles life measures 22-24.
"I'm hurt and I'm humiliated," Weaver said late tonight. He was smiling and chain-smoking, a peculiar combination. "I'm laughing, but I'm embarrassed, that's me. I ain't even telling you how I feel as far as Mr. Williams (Edward Bennett Williams, Orioles owner) and for the fans in Baltimore are concerned.
"I've been saying how we're getting straightened out. We were high as a kite when we won four or five games in a row. I thought I was telling the truth . . . "
Whatever happened to the days when Orioles starters did more than break half a sweat? Baltimore starters have been unable to finish the fourth inning 24 times during this 52-50 season. (Starters failed to finish the fourth only 13 times all of last season.)
Tonight's Indian heroes were shortstop Julio Franco, who had five RBI for the second time in his career; outfielder Brett Butler, who had four hits; and winning pitcher Curt Wardle (2-3), who went a career-most seven innings and gave up just four hits.
Wardle was acquired in this week's Bert Blyleven trade with Minnesota and flew in from Minneapolis today -- just in time to find out that tonight's scheduled starter, Jerry Reed, was sick and Wardle would start in his place.
Wardle had never started a game in the major leagues before tonight. Now, Bob Feller beware.
The Indians led, 5-0, after three innings. Wardle was in control for the most part. When he was out of control, Orioles hitters meekly put him back in control.
In the Baltimore first, Eddie Murray struck out, stranding Alan Wiggins on third. In the second, Wardle walked the bases loaded before defusing Wiggins on a two-out bouncer back to the mound.
Boddicker (10-12) was getting pounded. His pitching line was funereal: 1 1/3 innings, eight hits, five runs, all earned. Ouch. "The world won't stop," he said.
The Indians scored once in the first when Otis Nixon (.217) singled to left and stole second. He scored on Franco's groundout.
In the second, the Indians sent wicked liners all over the park. Tony Bernazard and Mike Hargrove opened with singles. One out later, Butler ripped an RBI single into right (2-0). Then Franco sent a run-and-hit single to right, for another run (3-0).
Andre Thorton dropped a two-run double into left-center, just out of the reach of diving left fielder Gary Roenicke. It was 5-0.
In the fourth, Floyd Rayford plastered a two-run homer over the 387-foot sign, just out of the reach of leaping Butler, and it was 5-2.
But survival became surrender in the bottom of the fourth when the Indians torched reliever Storm Davis. You knew things were bad for the Orioles when Nixon opened the inning by bunting for a double.
As Nixon squared to bunt, Rayford charged in from third. Nixon's liner went over Rayford's head and rolled into left field. Franco and George Vukovich drilled run-scoring singles before the inning was over and it was 7-2.
The Indians added two runs in the fifth and Davis' line was almost as gawdawful as Boddicker's: 3 1/3 innings, seven hits, four runs, all earned. Through five, it was 9-2, Indians, over and out. Only Mike Young's two-run homer in the eighth (his 13th) added a tad of grace.
Someone asked Weaver if he'll return next season. "The more they lose, the more I want to come back and punish them," he said. He was still smiling, still chain-smoking. "Oh, what a spring training it will be. We'll start at 7 o'clock in the morning and they'll still be working at 7 o'clock at night when I'm at about the 15th or 16th tee."
Are you serious about all this, Earl? "Ninety percent of this is serious," Weaver said. "The other 10 percent is tongue-in-cheek so I can keep my sanity."