Welcome back to our series on the 10 Best Games of 1997, part of Camden Chat's ongoing profile on the last winning baseball team in Baltimore. When last we checked in, the Orioles raked the Royals on Opening Day, claiming their spot atop the AL East standings that they would never relinquish. After that, there was no shortage of exciting games. The O's topped the Royals again on April 9, tying the game in the ninth inning on Rafael Palmeiro's two-run homer and winning it on Jeffrey Hammonds's RBI double in extras. Mike Mussina pitched eight innings of three-hit, shutout ball against the White Sox on April 17; eight days later, Scott Erickson did exactly the same thing against Boston. Roberto Alomar was an unstoppable force the next day, crushing the Red Sox for three homeruns in a 14-5 rout on April 26.
It's safe to say things were going pretty well for the Orioles as they entered play on May 6, which is the subject of our second installment. The Birds carried an AL-best 19-9 record into Camden Yards as they hosted the then-Anaheim, no-longer-California-but-not-yet-Los-Angeles-of-Anaheim Angels. The Orioles, though, had lost to the Angels the previous night. If it happened again on May 6, it would mark the first series loss of the year for the Birds, who had won or split their first 11 series.
The back-and-forth game began with the lead in the Orioles' hands, courtesy of Eric Davis's solo homerun off Angels ace Chuck Finley in the first. It began a 4-for-4 night for Davis, whose first year with the Orioles was off to an incredible start-- seven homeruns, 19 RBIs, and an otherworldly 1.149 OPS.
The Angels, though, rallied in the third against Erickson, the O's starter. Doubles by Luis Alicea and Jim Edmonds tied the game, and Dave Hollins put Anaheim on top with an RBI single. Later in the inning, with Hollins at second and two down, third baseman Cal Ripken booted a Garret Anderson grounder, turning the potential third out into an unearned run as Hollins raced home. The Orioles trailed, 3-1...but something tells me Cal will redeem himself later. (I've read ahead.)
In the home half of the third, it was the Angels' turn to give away a run through defensive bungling. The O's had two on with two outs when Finley rung up a strikeout of Palmeiro, which should've ended the inning...but the ball scooted away from catcher Jorge Fabregas. In his haste to get the ball to first, he threw it away, bringing home the Birds' second run.
The Angels got that run right back in the fourth on Darin Erstad's RBI single, and the score remained 4-2 for quite a while. Finley held the Birds in check and carried the lead into the seventh. But, come on. This is the 1997 Orioles we're talking about. They wouldn't have been the successful team they were if they let a few late-inning deficits get them discouraged.
Sure enough, the Birds battled back, and in particularly dramatic fashion. The turnaround inning was the seventh, which began with a B.J. Surhoff single. Lenny Webster promptly doubled him home, cutting the deficit to one. Man, I loved Lenny Webster. He was short, fat, and lugged around a bat bigger than himself, but danged if he wasn't a quality backup catcher.
Mike Bordick snuck a single through the right side, moving Webster to third. Then came a huge play. Brady Anderson tapped a grounder to first, and the no-holds-barred Webster took off for the plate as Erstad fired home. Lenny wasn't exactly fleet afoot, but...he's SAFE! He slid home safely ahead of the throw, knotting the score at 4. It's a brand new ballgame.
Not for long. A Davis single was sandwiched between a pair of strikeouts, setting up the kind of situation you dream about playing whiffle ball in your yard. Bases loaded. Two outs. Tie game. Up stepped Cal Ripken, and right-hander Pep Harris came in from the bullpen to face him.
Advantage: Cal. On a 1-0 pitch, Ripken crushed a long line drive to left field. As the Camden Yards crowd of 37,150 watched breathlessly, the ball sailed into the seats for a go-ahead, game-breaking grand slam. That's the way to take the lead! The crowd went wild as Cal trotted the bases with his sixth career salami, capping a six-run O's rally in the seventh.
"There's a new hero every night," Ripken said after the game (quotes courtesy of The Free-Lance Star, May 7, 1997). "No one person has to do it every night. I've never been that type of person, like Eddie Murray, who would say, ‘I'll take the team on my back.'" But on this night, that's exactly what he did.
Erickson, despite his early-game struggles, pitched into the ninth inning. His defense did him no favors in the ninth when the first two batters reached on errors, hastening his exit. Closer Randy Myers put the kibosh on the Angels rally, retiring all three batters he faced to notch his 12th save. Myers had blown a save in his previous appearance-- his first and only of the year-- but starting with this save, he successfully converted his final 34 chances of the season (though he had some help, as we'll see in our next installment. That's what we call a teaser!). And the Orioles were in the win column for the 20th time. There's plenty more where that came from.