The Orioles are one day away from playing their first playoff game in 15 years. Wow-- just typing those words blows my mind. This is happening, folks. It's actually happening.
So as we gear ourselves up for postseason ball, let's take a look back at what transpired the last time the Orioles were there. Episode 9 of the 10 Best Games of 1997 series brings us to October 5, 1997: the Orioles' Division Series-clinching win over the Seattle Mariners.
The M's, the AL West champs, were no walkover opponent for the #1-seeded Orioles. Seattle's lineup that year bashed a then-record 264 homeruns during the regular season, led by Ken Griffey Jr.'s eye-popping 56. Eight of the Mariners' nine regular starters had an OPS of at least .800. From an offensive standpoint, the M's seemed to have an edge over the Birds.
Ah, but these Orioles had a secret weapon: their pitching staff was just absolutely amazing. ...OK, I guess that wasn't really a secret. But it's definitely a weapon! The Orioles set the tone for the series when they stormed into Seattle and won Games One and Two by identical 9-3 scores, with Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson both delivering quality starts while the O's offense racked up 27 hits in the two games.
The O's returned to Baltimore with a chance to clinch, though they faltered in Game Three with a 4-2 loss. Still, they were only delaying the inevitable. That set the stage for Game Four, which promised a matchup of aces: Mussina against tall M's flamethrower Randy Johnson.
Two things about Randy Johnson. The guy was an amazing, Hall-of-Fame-bound pitcher who had a spectacular year...but man, the Orioles absolutely owned him during that 1997 season. His record against the Orioles? 0-4. His record against everyone else? 20-2. Yeah. The O's had already bested him in the series, battering him for five runs in five innings in their Game 1 win.
The other thing about Randy Johnson is that the O's managed to beat him while stapling many of their most prominent hitters to the bench. Every time the Big Unit faced the Birds, skipper Davey Johnson benched the Orioles' RBI leader, Rafael Palmeiro, as well as big bats Roberto Alomar and B.J. Surhoff. Well, okay, sitting your left-handers against a tough lefty may make sense during the grind of a regular season...but surely Davey wouldn't bench his best hitters in the playoffs, right? I mean, it's the playoffs!
Well, heck yeah he could. Davey didn't budge on his strategy, keeping the trio on the pine. "I passed the idea in front of my coaches, and they said to leave it the way it is," Johnson said. "We have a game plan, and we were going to stick with it, no matter what." That, my friends, takes some guts. Some would call it crazy. But it was just crazy enough to work.
It took less than an inning for the gambit to pay off. Alomar's replacement in the lineup-- utility man Jeff Reboulet-- shocked the world by smacking a homerun into the left-field seats in the bottom of the first, staking the Orioles to a lead that they would never relinquish. It's funny-- to this day I can barely remember any homeruns hit by Roberto Alomar, or Palmeiro, or Surhoff. But that Jeff Reboulet bomb will be stuck in my mind forever. This was Orioles Magic. "Davey's behind everyone," Reboulet said. "A lot of people said he should have put more left handers out there. But he stuck his neck out and stuck with the lineup that had worked."
Cal Ripken smacked an RBI double later that inning, and quickly, the O's had jumped all over Randy Johnson again. "We were in first place all year. There's no way he is going to intimidate a first-place team," said Orioles DH Geronimo Berroa. Geronimo joined in on the fun, too, with a fifth-inning homer that snuck into the first row of seats in left, bringing another ovation from the raucous sellout crowd of 48,766 at Camden Yards.
As it turned out, Johnson actually pitched an outstanding game-- he went the full eight innings on the road, holding the Orioles to just three runs. "I pitched my butt off. I got beat," said Johnson. "All the hype going in was how I couldn't beat these guys. I pitched as good a game as I did all year. But tip your hat to the Baltimore Orioles-- their pitching was much better."
It certainly was on this thrilling night. For that we can thank Mussina, who came up huge in perhaps the most important start of his career to that point. Pitching on three days' rest for the first time all year, Mussina handcuffed the powerful M's offense. In seven sensational innings, he held the Mariners to just two hits-- both in the second inning, when they scored their only run-- and racking up seven strikeouts. In a tense playoff atmosphere, Mussina's dominance put Orioles fans' minds at ease. "What you'll find as you advance in the playoffs is that pitching really is your strength," said outfielder Brady Anderson.
Moose probably could've pitched deeper into the game, but with the shutdown late-inning tandem of Armando Benitez and Randy Myers available, Davey Johnson let his bullpen close the door. Benitez and Myers did their usual stellar work, retiring the last six batters they faced. After shortstop Mike Bordick threw out Jay Buhner for the final out, the Orioles poured out of the dugout to celebrate their Division Series win. It was actually a pretty tame celebration by today's standards-- the Birds exchanged high fives and hugs on the field, but there was no manic dogpile or frenzied helmet-bashing. Heck, it was nowhere near the show the Orioles put on when they toppled the Red Sox in Game 162 last year. Those ‘97 guys were all business, I suppose.
And so as the Orioles prepare to face the Texas Rangers in the wild card showdown on Friday night, let's hope the O's can recreate the magic from exactly 15 years earlier-- that memorable October 5, 1997.
*All quotes in this article are from the October 6, 1997, edition of The Free Lance-Star.