Welcome back to the 10 Best Games of 1997 series. Our fifth memorable game occurred on the same homestand as our last one, Mike Mussina's near-perfecto. Suffice it to say that the O's enjoyed quite an interesting week of baseball. In fact, today's installment was ranked as one of the 20 best games in Camden Yards history during MASN's countdown this past winter.
First, the good news: the Orioles, as play began on June 3, 1997, were the best team in baseball, carrying an incredible 36-15 record as the only major-league club with a .700-plus winning percentage. So there wasn't a whole lot for O's fans to complain about.
But there was one stick in our craw: the New York Bleeping Yankees. The team we hated then, hate now, and will continue to hate for as long as those pinstriped homunculi strut around with their entitled, holier-than-thou attitude and gag-worthy roster of unlikeable dolts.
Perhaps the main reason we don't like them is that...well...they win a lot of games. And a lot of those are at the Orioles' expense. That was true even during the Orioles' successful years of 1996 and 1997. Incredibly, the ‘96 Orioles-- a team that went to the playoffs-- didn't win a single game at home against the Yankees, with their 0-9 record capped by three losses in the ALCS. "I've never been dominated like that by any club. I know it hurt these guys in the clubhouse," lamented manager Davey Johnson (as reported by The Free-Lance Star).
So as the 1997 Orioles hosted the Yankees for the first time on the season, they had a score to settle. A debt to repay. A dish of revenge to serve cold.
Orioles starter Jimmy Key, who had been a Yankee the previous season, didn't do much to help the Birds' cause. He put the O's in a quick hole by giving up singles to the first three batters, including a Bernie Williams RBI knock. Williams burned Key again in the fifth inning, smashing a three-run homer to cap a four-run rally, with the Yankees collecting six consecutive baserunners with two outs. Key, who entered with a 9-1 record, did not have his finest outing on this night.
The Birds' bats tried their best to stay in the game against Yankee starter David Cone. Tony Tarasco-- who himself had a beef to settle with the Yankees, after he-who-shall-not-be-named robbed him of a catch in the previous year's ALCS-- got the Birds on the board with a two-run homer in the second. Cal Ripken contributed an RBI double the following inning. But Cone followed with three scoreless innings from there, and the O's still trailed 5-3 in the seventh.
These Orioles, though, had a knack for winning the battle of the bullpens, thanks to a shutdown relief corps. "We were close to them last year, and now that we have everyone healthy, I think our bullpen is as good as anyone's," said veteran lefty Jesse Orosco, who teamed with Armando Benitez for a scoreless eighth and ninth. Johnson agreed: "It was similar to the way the Yankees beat us last year. They would come from behind and their bullpen would shut us down."
This time, the shoe was on the other foot, and it the O's who pulled off the late-inning heroics. In the eighth, the Yankees cycled through three pitchers-- Cone, Graeme Lloyd, and Ramiro Mendoza-- as the O's loaded the bases with two outs for Mike Bordick. Now, full disclosure: back then, I did not like Mike Bordick. I was a huge Cal Ripken fan, and I couldn't understand why he got bumped off of shortstop in favor of some guy who couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. So I'm sure teenage Paul was yelling at the TV, sure that Bordick was going to blow the rally.
Well, he shut me up. Bordick came through with a clutch, line-drive, two-run double that knotted the game at five. The O's, seven outs away from their 10th straight home loss to the Yankees, had just made it a brand new ballgame and brought life back into the crowd.
The game headed to extra innings, and after closer Randy Myers pitched a scoreless 10th, the O's walked off happy in the bottom of the inning. With one out, utility man Jeff Reboulet-- batting just .212-- trickled a single up the middle against reliever Jim Mecir. Up next was Rafael Palmeiro, who had amassed 10 homeruns and 37 RBIs in the first two months of the season.
Let's add to those totals. On a 2-1 pitch, Mecir threw a breaking ball at the knees that Palmeiro jumped on and golfed to deep right field. The Yankees could only look on helplessly as the ball sailed over the out-of-town scoreboard and onto the flag court for a walkoff two-run homer. The Camden Yards crowd of 47,577 went wild, exchanging hugs and high-fives as Palmeiro rounded the bases and was greeted by his teammates at home plate. A 7-5 win was in the books.
The monkey was finally off the Orioles' back as they bested the Yanks in Baltimore. The O's had made a statement: the AL East was theirs to win, and no pinstriped posers would stop them.