You know, when we started this Camden Chat series highlighting the fantastic 1997 O's ballclub, I never imagined that we'd be able to legitimately compare them to this year's Orioles team. But believe it or not, the 2012 Orioles have stacked up quite nicely to the ‘97 Birds thus far. Today, on May 18, the Orioles have the best record in the American League...just as they did on May 18, 1997. Both teams have ridden a homer-happy offense and a shutdown bullpen to set themselves atop the AL East division. And in fact, the present-day Orioles have proven to be slightly better road warriors than the vaunted 1997 club; through 18 away games, the current Orioles are 13-5 while the ‘97 Birds began 12-6. I never imagined that this year's Orioles would be better than the 1997 Orioles at ANYTHING, small sample size or not.
And that brings us to the third stop on our rundown of the 10 Best Games of 1997: an O's visit to Seattle's Kingdome on May 18. The Birds were looking to complete a three-game sweep of the Mariners, and each team had its ace on the mound-- Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson, respectively. This, as it turns out, was a preview of the AL Division Series. Obviously the teams didn't know that at the time, but I do, because I'm from the future. Whoaaaaaaaa.
On this night, neither Johnson nor Mussina resembled anything close to an ace. In fact, neither hurler made it past the fifth inning. Mussina took the worst of the damage, runs-wise; the Mariners scored upon him in four of his five innings. Just two batters into the game, Mussina put his team in a hole when Alex Rodriguez clubbed a two-run homer. It didn't get much better from there, as Edgar Martinez's RBI single in the third and Paul Sorrento's leadoff homerun in the fourth extended the Mariners' lead.
The Big Unit was even more of a wreck. Coming off offseason back surgery, the 6'10 lefty struggled badly with his mechanics all night, putting O's batters on base with an eye-popping EIGHT walks. He's the original Daniel Cabrera! Two of those walks helped the Birds load the bases in the first, with Cal Ripken's groundout plating the first run. The Orioles wasted the next three free passes, but finally capitalized in the fifth. A pair of walks put two aboard for Chris Hoiles, the erstwhile catcher making a rare start at first base. With one swing, Hoiles erased the Birds' 4-1 deficit, knotting the score by cranking his seventh homerun of the year.
After one more walk, Johnson finished the fifth and was done after throwing 118 pitches. Mussina, sadly, handed the lead right back to the M's in the home half of the fifth. Ken Griffey Jr. tagged him for his league-leading 19th homerun, a two-run shot, to make it a 6-4 game. Mussina gave up six runs in five innings all told, and from the sixth onward it was a battle of the bullpens.
The HR derby continued when Jeffrey Hammonds led off the sixth with a blast against Bobby Ayala. The M's got that run right back on a Joey Cora RBI triple in the sixth, but again the O's cut the deficit to one on a Hoiles run-scoring double in the seventh. This was certainly a high-scoring roller-coaster of a game. Through the first 13 half-innings, NINE of them featured runs.
Then things calmed down for a couple of innings, and so the Orioles entered the top of the ninth still trailing by a 7-6 score. The Mariners brought in their closer, Norm Charlton. (Less than one year later, Charlton would be in an Orioles uniform stinking up the joint, but at this point he was still Seattle's stopper.) Because he's Norm Charlton, he immediately got himself into trouble, giving up a pair of singles and a walk to load the bases with one out. But he rung up a big strikeout of Hammonds, leaving the Orioles' hopes in the hands of pinch-hitter Rafael Palmeiro.
Yes, pinch-hitter Rafael Palmeiro. Did I forget to mention? With the southpaw Johnson starting the game, O's manager Davey Johnson benched three of his best hitters-- Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, and B.J. Surhoff-- in favor of right-handers. Certainly a bit of an extreme strategy, but it is just a regular-season game, after all. It's not like Davey would do the same thing in the playoffs, right? (Hold that thought. We'll be revisiting it in October.)
So anyway, Palmeiro was available as a bat off the bench in the ninth, and Johnson took full advantage. On a 1-1 pitch, Raffy ripped a line drive back up the middle. Two runs will score! The Orioles, down to their final out, had just turned a one-run deficit into a one-run lead. Ninth inning comebacks, I tell ya. Yet another thing they have in common with the 2012 Orioles.
Still, the win wasn't in the books yet. Orioles closer Randy Myers got the first two outs of the ninth, but then gave up two straight singles to A-Rod and Griffey to bring up the dangerous Edgar Martinez. And that's when Davey Johnson made another bold move: he yanked his closer out of the game right then and there, setting up a righty-righty matchup with Armando Benitez. Wow. Sure, he was playing the percentages, but how many present-day managers* would have the gumption to pull their closer in the middle of a save opportunity? (*Please ignore the fact that Davey Johnson himself is a present-day manager.) Nowadays the only time you see an "established closer" get pulled from a game is if he's already blown the save or if he's absolutely getting tattooed, neither of which was the case with Myers here.
Davey may have risked upsetting his closer, but he won the game. Benitez retired Martinez on a grounder to strand the tying and winning runs on base, completing the Orioles' three-game sweep. The O's extended their division lead over the second-place Yankees to four games. No team would pull within four games of the O's again until nearly two months later, as the 1997 Orioles continued to lay waste to the American League.
Your move, 2012 Orioles.