ORIOLES CLINCH AL EAST
How does that headline strike you? Sounds pretty sweet, huh? Can you believe that we could possibly see these very words uttered sometime within the next two weeks? I wouldn't even know what to do with myself. Camden Chat would be absolute pandemonium. It'd be pure hysteria throughout Birdland. Man, I hope this happens.
If it does, as you well know, it'll be Orioles' first division crown in 15 years. And that brings us to episode 8 of the 10 Best Games of 1997 series: September 24, 1997. It was the night when the O's cemented their place in baseball history by becoming just the sixth team to pull off a wire-to-wire run as division champs.
What began on Opening Day-- with a 4-2 win that put the O's in first place-- continued throughout the season as the O's annihilated one opponent after another, never falling from the division-leading perch. And even though the O's stumbled slightly at the start of September (going 9-16 at the beginning of the month), they'd built up such an insurmountable lead that it was simply inevitable that they'd clinch the AL East crown before the season was done.
And so it happened one Wednesday evening in Toronto. It came against a phoning-it-in Blue Jays team that had just fired their manager, Cito Gaston, earlier in the afternoon. Man, what a day for the Orioles! Not only did the Birds clinch, but one of O's fans' most despised managers was sent packing. I'm pretty sure there are still some "Cito Sucks" T-shirts adorning Baltimore fans' wardrobes to this day.
This game fit the tried-and-true 1997 Orioles formula. Get a quality start from your outstanding rotation, let your offensive stars punch out some runs, and hand it over to your shutdown bullpen. Nothing to it. Tonight's pitching stalwart was fourth starter Scott Kamieniecki, an underrated member of that wire-to-wire team. Kammy was a washed-out Yankees hurler whom the O's picked up as a free agent before the season, hoping to squeeze some use out of him after an injury-plagued ‘96 campaign. Kamieniecki won a rotation spot in spring and proceeded to give the Orioles 30 starts, 179 innings, and a 4.01 ERA as a secret weapon behind top three starters Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, and Jimmy Key. You don't get to be a 98-win team without having a few players come through with out-of-nowhere quality seasons like Kammy. "I was just looking to make this team out of spring training," he said. "To be a part of this celebration is special."
On this night, Kamieniecki ate up seven innings and allowed three runs. He hung in long enough to be the beneficiary of a late Orioles rally. Trailing 2-0 in the sixth, the O's erupted for a five-spot against future Bird Omar Daal and reliever Tim Crabtree, an inning that featured four doubles (including Lenny Webster's go-ahead two-bagger). The Orioles poured in on in subsequent innings; Rafael Palmeiro-- who didn't even enter the game until the sixth-- went 2-for-2 with a three-run homer as the O's took a 9-3 lead in the ninth.
Even in a non-save situation, manager Davey Johnson gave closer Randy Myers the honor of finishing the game that would clinch the division title. And that he did. Fittingly enough, the final out was recorded on a line drive to Cal Ripken, the only Oriole remaining from the Birds' previous division-winning team in 1983. "You can make the same comparisons between the ‘83 team and this team," Cal said. "We're a pretty versatile team. We pitch very well, we execute very well and find ways to win offensively."
There it is. Orioles clinch AL East, four games ahead of the defending champion Yankees, holding first place from start to finish. "Wire-to-wire. It's kind of mind-boggling," said Ripken. And Cal was not a man whose mind was easily boggled, so that's saying something.
The party began when the O's got back to the clubhouse, pouring champagne and beer all over each other in a raucous celebration. "It's special. You're the last one standing," said the skipper Johnson. "You can't do it much better, especially considering we're in the same division as last year's world champions." His thoughts were echoed by the Orioles' assistant GM, Kevin Malone. "This is something rare, something extremely special, and ... this didn't happen by accident," he said. "For us to finish ahead of the defending world champions in arguably one of the toughest divisions in baseball is something to be proud of."
It was a memorable achievement, to be sure, but the Orioles' mission was by no means complete. After they were finished with their final four regular-season games, they had a date with the Seattle Mariners in the Division Series, a matchup that promised to be a difficult task. "This celebration is going to be sweet, but it's also going to be short," said Ripken. "We've got to start thinking about Seattle, and anything can happen in a short series. Fortunately, the kind of season we had is something we can dwell on as we get ready for the playoffs." And we'll take a look at how the O's fared in that series when the 10 Best Games returns for the next installment.
In the meantime, 15 years later, the 2012 Orioles are hoping to follow in the footsteps of that outstanding pennant-winning club. There's no wire-to-wire this time around, but this improbably awesome O's team is hoping to reclaim its long-abandoned throne atop the AL East.
All quotes in this article are from the September 25, 1997 editions of The Baltimore Sun and The Free Lance-Star.