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  Bitter End for O's

Thomas Boswell
By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 1997; Page A1

BALTIMORE, Oct. 15 — Oriole Park became the Orioles' torture chamber today. In one of the tensest, tightest playoff games of the decade, the Cleveland Indians went to the World Series with a 1-0 victory in 11 innings on Tony Fernandez's home run off Armando Benitez.

For the bitter Orioles, a season was Left On Base. Two dozen overanxious Orioles came to bat with a teammate on the bases in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. None could drive home even one man, as 14 Orioles were stranded. Because of that, one of the best pitching efforts in playoff history, by Mike Mussina, was utterly wasted. Eight innings, one hit, 10 strikeouts. Down the drain.

To the general follower of the sport, Mussina's work in this game, this series and the first-round series against Seattle may be more remarkable and remembered longer than anything else. But to the joyous Indians celebrating on the mound, and the Orioles, complaining to the umpires to the last pitch, the final score was all that mattered.

For those who enjoy irony, the last pitch of the Orioles' season was a called third strike on Roberto Alomar on a full-count fastball from reliever Jose Mesa that probably missed the plate by a smidgen. Last season, the Indians were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Orioles when Alomar's two-out, two-strike single off Mesa tied the game in the ninth, allowing his homer in the 12th, also off Mesa, to win it. No, this was the year of the Other Alomar — Roberto's brother, Sandy, who has been the Indians' central hero for weeks.

Just as in the last game in this park between these teams five days ago, the decisive blow was a home run on a high hanging slider from Benitez — the man who throws 99 miles per hour yet sometimes chooses other options.

Last time, in Game 2, Marquis Grissom — the most valuable player of this series — took Benitez far over the center field fence with two men on base. In between Camden Yards disasters, the normally overpowering Benitez gave up a game-losing, extra-inning hit to Sandy Alomar in Game 4.

This time, the blow was like a bolt of lighting on a night with no storm in sight. Sluggers had batted for hours without a run scoring. Dozens of pitches had been swung at and missed. Yet with two out and a 2-0 count, Benitez chose to throw his second-best pitch. It ended in the geometrical center of the plate and Fernandez, known only for occasional power, knew that he'd struck gold as soon as he struck the ball.

Before his feet were out of the batter's box, or the ball had landed in the second row of the temporary bleachers above the right field scoreboard, Fernandez's hands were flung above his head in delight.

For those who don't think fortune plays it's part, consider this. Fernandez was only put in the starting lineup at the last minute because Bip Roberts was hit in the hand with a line drive in batting practice.

The Indians are going back to their second World Series in three years. Just as appropriate: The Orioles upset the Indians last season in the first-round series after Cleveland had compiled the best record in the league. Turn about may be fair play. But don't tell the full house here, which may, finally, have dispelled the idea that Camden Yards crowds are blase.

This game, however, and especially Mussina's performance, could turn a sport agnostic into a fanatic. Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson would have been proud of Mussina. The best of baseball never changes, ignoring the march of generations. Emotions are raised to the skies on gray October afternoons.

Mussina had been almost perfect four times in a succession in a glorious fortnight that will radically change his stature in his game.

No one has ever pitched better at this time of year and for these stakes. In 29 innings against the two highest-scoring teams in baseball, Mussina has allowed just 11 hits (a .118 batting average) and four runs (1.24 earned run average) while striking out 41 batters and walking seven.

You may think Mussina was elegant 15 days ago when he beat Randy Johnson head-to-head in Seattle, allowing just two runs and sending down nine Mariners winging. And you may even consider him heroic for beating Johnson again just four days later, permitting only two hits and one paltry run. Finally, you may think that he was truly amazing just four days ago when he fanned 15 Indians in the twilight at Jacobs Field. Only one man ever struck out more men in any postseason game (Bob Gibson fanned 17 in one game in the 1968 World Series.)

Today, however, Mussina was better. He didn't have run support of any kind. Worse, he had to watch his teammates cracking under pressure inning after inning. In his other autumn jewels, he had some room for error. This time, his team had to win or go home for the winter.

Locked in a draining scoreless duel with Charles Nagy, Mussina evoked images of Gibson's intensity and Sandy Koufax's overpowering stuff. They made huge hitters with clubs in their hand look like a pitiable breed with little future. Mussina joined their company yesterday. His 41 postseason strikeouts are a record, breaking the mark of 35 set by Gibson, Tom Seaver and Orel Hershiser.

The Orioles had so many chances in the first eight innings against Nagy that it sometimes seemed that there must be at least two orange-and-black clad players on the same base to accommodate them all. Baltimore had seven singles, two doubles and two walks and the leadoff man reached base in five innings. In all, 24 Orioles came to bat with a teammate on base, 11 of them with a runner on second, third or both.

But tension is a terrible weakener of hitters. The Orioles — especially Rafael Palmeiro, who stranded five runners — got themselves out as much as Nagy defeated them.

One Oriole actually hit a home run. Sort of. In the sixth inning, Chris Hoiles blasted a ball toward his favorite home-run spot — the Orioles' bullpen. The Baltimore relievers were standing, ready to catch the ball, when a wind — dead in from center field — knocked the ball down for an out at the fence.

That wind shifted direction all day and was only intermittenly aimed at home plate. Yet, like all the winds of this series, with a World Series at stake, it blew ill for the Orioles.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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