I've been watching Orioles games attentively for about 17 years now. In that time, I've seen plenty of exciting games: historical moments, improbable rallies, ninth-inning escapes, and walkoff wins. But for some reason, the earliest of those last-at-bat victories that I can remember happened in 1996 - three years after I began rooting for the Birds in earnest.
Of course, that ended up being a memorable season for other reasons, as the O's broke a major league record by smashing 257 home runs en route to the American League Wild Card (their first playoff appearance since 1983) and a postseason upset of the defending A.L. champion Indians. But on the date in question - Saturday, June 22, 1996 - the team hadn't quite put it into gear yet. They'd started the year 11-2, but had been playing sub-.500 ball since and sat three games behind the Yankees as they took the field. It was an afternoon game against the Royals, being televised on Fox. It seems inconceivable now that such a matchup would be nationally televised, but the mid-90s were a simpler time. I even recall that Baltimore was wearing its snappy new black alternate jerseys, which thankfully went over better than the previous year's gray cap horror. But I digress.
Anyway, I was watching the game by myself, enjoying the seeming endless summer before my freshman year of high school. Scott Erickson started for the Orioles and pitched a fine enough game, allowing three runs on eight hits and three walks. Those totals may look high, but errors by Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla led to a two-run first inning for K.C., and after David Howard's run-scoring fielder's choice in the second, Scotty kept the visitors off of the scoreboard for the rest of the game.
Unfortunately, the O's bats were downright anemic. Opposing starter Tim Belcher held them to two hits through eight innings (including a string of 12 straight batters retired) and took the mound in the bottom of the ninth with a 3-0 lead that seemed more than sufficient. Luis Polonia (inexplicably getting the start at DH) hit a grounder right back to Belcher, and there were undoubtedly many fans searching for the exits at Oriole Park.
That's when the fireworks started.
Roberto Alomar lined a double to center field, and Palmeiro atoned for his earlier mistake by crushing a two-run homer over the right-center field fence. Suddenly it was a one-run game and Belcher was history. In came closer Jeff Montgomery, he of the 304 career saves, to try to shut the door. With redemption being the theme of the inning, Bobby Bonilla greeted Montgomery with a game-tying home run. Now it was a whole new game, and all of the momentum was with the good guys. Looking rattled, the Royals pitcher walked Cal Ripken, Jr. before recovering to retire B. J. Surhoff on a deep fly ball to left field. With two outs and the winning run on first base, it was up to 26-year-old left fielder Mark Smith to avoid extra innings. Coming into the game, he had only 161 career plate appearances in 51 games...
Evidently Mark wasn't big on suspense. He launched the second pitch of the at-bat over the wall for a game-winning two-run homer and was mobbed at the plate! Orioles 5, Royals 3. Having relived it with the help of Retrosheet, I'd kind of like to find video of that whole inning.
As a postscript, that was the fifth home run of Smith's career. He would hit only 32 in his career, and never reached double digits in any season. That's baseball for you.