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8 Upper

Last Rites

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/6/1999

Suppose you gave the Orioles one last chance this past Sunday. It occurred to you, as you were flipping channels between the National League pennant race and the slow grinding of the Ravens-Falcons struggle: This is it, game number 162, the last chance this year to see the Birds. And so you changed the channel, to pay your respects, and—what was this?— it was the eighth inning, and the line score read BOS 0 0 0. The Orioles, the stumbling, baffling, frustrating Orioles of 1999, were six outs away from no-hitting the Boston Red Sox.

But even as that ray of hope began to shine, two clouds were drifting across it. First of all, you can't win a game, whether your opponent is hitting or not, if you don't score, and the Orioles hadn't managed to push across any runs of their own. Second, their new pitcher, called in from the bullpen to preserve the no-hitter, was Jim Corsi.

Corsi, for those who stopped paying full attention to O's roster moves this year, was a midseason pickup. He's a 38-year-old righthander, a late-middle reliever, who's notable mainly for how much he resembles a baseball himself, especially in his home whites. The sight of his round form atop the mound was not unfamiliar to the visiting Red Sox—it was Boston that cut Corsi loose right before the All-Star break.

And you were thinking about a no-hitter. Right then, in the eighth, the Orioles were riding a four-game losing streak. They hadn't scored a run in 18 innings. They were trying to salvage one win against a Red Sox team that had been cuffing them around all weekend. They were trying to do this with a Red Sox reject on the mound.

Of course it didn't work. This is not the movies. Nobody makes movies about teams like the Orioles. Corsi got Donnie Sadler to ground out (Five outs to go!), and then he struck out Damon Buford (Four outs to go!), and then Jeff Frye cracked a clean single into right center field. BOS 0 1 0.

History having been duly dispensed with, destiny took over. The O's escaped the inning without giving up a run, with B.J. Surhoff cutting Frye down at the plate for the final out. But the Orioles didn't score in the eighth either. In the bottom of the ninth, with the game still scoreless, Jerry Hairston Jr. got thrown out trying to steal—the last gasp of manager Ray Miller's futile run-manufacturing offense. And in the 10th, with Mike Timlin pitching, the Sox strung together three more hits, topped off by an RBI single from Frye. From there, the O's went meekly to their 84th defeat.

Frye is not Boston's starting second baseman. He's not even the second-stringer, properly speaking. The Orioles were done in by a guy who's part of the Olde Towne Team's back-up utility rotation, a collection of rookies and journeymen whose résumés probably couldn't have gotten them invited to Baltimore's training camp.

Even on paper, before the season began, you knew the O's didn't stack up well against the Yankees or the Indians. But Boston had no such obvious edge—and in many ways, it still doesn't. The Orioles out-hit the Beantowners this season, scored 15 more runs, clouted 27 more homers. The Birds had three pitchers with 12 or more wins; the Sox had just one. (Of course, that one is Pedro Martinez, of the 23-4 record, 2.07 ERA, and 313 strikeouts.) And yet Boston is going to the playoffs with 94 wins under its belt, while the Orioles sit at home with a feeble 78.

All the usual abstract baseball mumbo-jumbo applies here: Boston played harder than the Orioles did all year, found ways to win the close games, and so on. And the Sox had concrete advantages too. They were faster than the Orioles (they hit twice as many triples, 42 to 21), and they walked far fewer batters, and their relief pitchers gave up far fewer runs.

The Sox did all these things, both the material and spiritual ones, because they are a well-run organization. Where the Orioles started the season with a sclerotic marquee veteran installed at every position, Boston had a pool of well-scouted, mostly obscure players competing for jobs. They lost their starting catcher to injury; they discovered a better one behind him. They picked up Brian Daubach off waivers from the Marlins and watched him bat .294 and drive in 73 runs. And whenever a pitcher faltered or got hurt, they called on another of their seemingly endless supply of young arms. While Miller was wearing out his bullpen, feuding with his stars, and complaining to the press, the genial Jimy Williams was spreading the playing time around, putting hot bats in the lineup, and winning, winning, winning.

You think back to one at-bat, in the Oct. 1 game. In the second inning, with the O's already down 3-0, Albert Belle blasted the ball to center field. Damon Buford—former Oriole Damon Buford—loped back to the fence, leaped, reached far over the wall, and hauled the ball back into the park. Belle, the $14 million slugger, glowered and went back to the dugout, and the .242-hitting Buford swaggered back to his position.

But you didn't want to dwell on the O's on Oct. 3. There was wild-card action to watch: The Mets-Pirates game was on ESPN2, with Jon Miller—the broadcaster Peter Angelos drove out of Baltimore three years ago—doing the announcing. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets broke a 1-1 tie. The winning pitcher? Hard-throwing Armando Benitez, whom the Orioles gave up on after last season. You switched to the football game.

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