Rafael Palmeiro, back when we used to like him. (Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger /Allsport)
It's back! The 10 Best Games of 1997 series makes its triumphant return after a two-month hiatus. Because you, the public, demanded to see it...or at least, you didn't demand not to see it, and that's good enough.
I've gotten so swept up in the unexpected postseason chase of the 2012 Orioles that I almost forgot there's an even more awesome O's club we're supposed to be keeping tabs on. In our last installment of the series on June 4, the O's laid a demonstrative beatdown on the rival Yankees to extend their division lead to 8 ½ games. For the next two months, the Birds continued to crush their competition, making sure that their ample lead wouldn't slip away.
There was no shortage of impressive wins in that span. In the Orioles' first-ever interleague series, they won back-to-back extra-inning games in Atlanta against the National League's best team. Then there was Mike Mussina's 12-strikeout complete-game masterpiece on June 25, a contest that also featured two Jeffrey Hammonds homers. Scott Erickson threw a shutout against his former team, the Twins, in late July, then another against the Angels in August.
But to crack the top 10 list, there's nothing quite like a last-at-bat tiebreaking grand slam to get the heart pumping. That brings us to August 27, 1997, as the O's hosted the Royals at Camden Yards. It was a sellout, as usual, with a crowd of 43,750 packing the house to watch the best team in baseball (hint: it wasn't the Royals). And for five innings, it looked like they had a chance to witness something truly special, thanks to another fantastic performance by the red-hot Erickson. Scottie retired the first 13 batters of the game in the following manner: groundout, groundout, strikeout. Groundout, strikeout, strikeout. Groundout, groundout, strikeout. Groundout, strikeout, groundout. Groundout. Not only did Erickson carry a perfect game into the fifth, but Royals hitters had yet to hit a fly ball or a line drive.
Erickson, though, ruined his bid for perfection through his own sloppy defensive work, committing a throwing error on what should've been an inning-ending groundout in the fifth. One inning later, Jermaine Dye led off with a single, thwarting the no-hitter. So much for making history. But after six innings the O's had a 3-0 lead-- thanks to a Rafael Palmeiro solo homer in the fifth, and a Geronimo Berroa two-run single in the sixth-- and so the game was shaping up to be an efficient, but not terribly dramatic, Orioles victory.
But the Royals made it a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, when the first two batters singled and then Chili Davis launched a game-tying three-run homer. Erickson finished the inning without further damage, but after pitching a whale of a game-- a perfecto into the fifth, a no-no into the sixth, a truly masterful display of Ks and grounders-- he left the mound without a win.
With the score still tied in the eighth, the Birds called on reliever Arthur Rhodes, who was in the midst of an under-the-radar great season out of the bullpen. Rhodes worked 95 innings in relief that year, racking up 102 strikeouts while serving in a variety of roles-- long man, setup man, lefty specialist. Just bring him in and watch him get batters out. He did his usual stellar work on this night, pitching two hitless, scoreless innings.
That set the stage for some late-inning Orioles Magic. Royals ace Kevin Appier departed after seven quality innings, and the Birds jumped all over his replacement, future Oriole Hector Carrasco (who was also, FYI, the pitcher who gave up Cal Ripken's 3,000th hit three years later). Carrasco retired two of the first three hitters-- with a Brady Anderson single sandwiched in between-- before the Birds mounted a two-out rally. A passed ball moved Anderson to second, convincing the Royals to intentionally walk B.J. Surhoff to set up a righty-righty matchup between Carrasco and Berroa. That didn't pan out, as Geronimo too drew a free pass to load the bases.
Up stepped Palmeiro, who already had a homerun in the game. Here, a simple single would've put the Orioles ahead...but Raffy had a much better idea, one that would make the moment as dramatic as humanly possible. Because that's just how the 1997 Orioles rolled.
Jumping on the first pitch, Palmeiro killed it. That one's way back there to right field, as the capacity crowd rose to its feet. And if Joe Angel were broadcasting O's games at that time, he'd have said, "You can wave it bye-bye!" It's a grand slam for Palmeiro, shattering a 3-3 tie and staking the Birds to a resounding 7-3 lead in the eighth. Man, Rafael Palmeiro was good back in those days, and a fan favorite. If only he'd never come back for his ill-fated, PED-scandal-marred second tour of duty in 2004-05, perhaps he'd be in the Orioles Hall of Fame. Just another reason why 1997 was awesome and every year after it stunk.
Rhodes finished out the game-- striking out the final two batters-- and the Birds improved their record to an eye-popping 84-45. It was only a matter of time before the Orioles clinched a spot in the postseason...and that, my friends, is where we'll pick up in our next episode.