Game Four of the 1996 American League Division Series was the focus of an Orioles Classics broadcast on MASN on Friday afternoon, and I watched all five hours of it. Even though 1996 was right in the middle of my formative years as a baseball fan, I believe this was the first time I'd seen this game. I remember going on a pre-planned bus trip to Kings Dominion with my church's youth group that Saturday. When we were all back in the bus at the end of the day, somebody announced the final score, and we let out a loud cheer. It was time to bring on the Yankees!
Nearly fifteen years later, I was struck both by how odd the game was and how long ago it seemed. It was originally broadcast on ESPN2, which still had the bizarre "underground" looking graphic interface, with all-lower-case letters and smears of color and what have you. Jon Miller (still the voice of the Orioles) had the play-by-play, but thankfully he was not joined by the insufferable Joe Morgan. Instead it was a three-man booth with Dave Campbell and the recently retired Kirby Puckett, who was something less than polished. The starting pitchers were Charles Nagy for the Indians, coming off of his career year (17-5, 3.41 ERA), and David Wells for the O's (11-14, 5.14 in his only season in Baltimore). Though Boomer had surrendered four runs in six and two-thirds innings in Game One, he fared better than Nagy, whom the Birds pounded for seven runs in five and one-third en route to a 10-4 win.
I'd forgotten just how much fun that 1996 Orioles team was. They were loaded with power-hitting veterans, and broke the 1961 Maris-Mantle Yankees team record by clubbing 257 home runs. A whopping seven hitters topped 20 home runs: Brady Anderson had 50, Rafael Palmeiro 39, Bobby Bonilla 28, Cal Ripken 26, Chris Hoiles 25, Alomar 22, B.J. Surhoff 21. As if the Birds didn't have enough sluggers, late-season trades brought in Todd Zeile (25 HR with the Phillies and O's) and Pete Incaviglia (18 total HR) and a returning Eddie Murray (22 total HR, including career #500). It would be hard to imagine that the pitching was a strength when you consider the 5.14 overall ERA, but it was a ridiculous year for offense; there were six teams in the American League alone with a higher mark, and I'd be willing to take my chances with a big three of Mike Mussina, Wells, and Scott Erickson.
It was interesting to see how Davey Johnson constructed his lineup. Brady and his 50 home runs led off, with Zeile as an unlikely #2 (he batted second in 100 of his 2016 career starts). A closer look shows that Todd offset a mediocre batting average with 82 walks in 1996, so Davey was on to something. Next came a murderous 3-4-5 of Alomar-Palmeiro-Bonilla, followed by Hall of Famers and old friends Cal and Eddie 6-7. Longtime Baltimore fans were probably used to seeing those two back-to-back, just not in those slots. Inky, starting for a hobbled Surhoff, played left field and batted eighth, and Chris Hoiles made one hell of a nine-hole guy.
Unfortunately, as the game progressed the weakness of that year's team was apparent: boom-or-bust. The O's jumped out to an early lead on back-to-back solo homers by Palmeiro and Bonilla in the second inning, and then were blanked for the next six frames. In 12 innings, they left 14 men on base. After the initial power display, Raffy and Bobby Bo were hitless for the rest of the game, each striking out four times. Oriole hitters struck out 23 times overall, while drawing only 3 walks.
On the mound, Wells battled gamely against a similarly-loaded Cleveland lineup. The catalysts were Kenny Lofton and Albert Belle, but combined they were 0-for-9 with a walk (an intentional pass to Belle in the first inning). The Indians broke through in the middle innings, with a two-out, two-run double by Sandy Alomar tying the contest in the fourth and and Omar Vizquel RBI single putting the hosts up 3-2 an inning later. Wells exited after seven innings, having allowed three runs on three walks and seven hits. Surprisingly, doughy reliever Terry Mathews held the Tribe in check in the eighth, which set the stage for ex-Oriole and current Indian closer Jose Mesa to slam the door on the O's.
Things looked grim as Incaviglia was called out on strikes and Surhoff (pinch-hitting for Hoiles) battled to a 2-2 count. But B.J., who had a gimpy hamstring and sore knee, sliced one up the middle and hobbled to first base. Having come through in a crucial moment, he was then lifted for pinch runner Manny Alexander. Next Anderson fought one off for a shallow fly ball single, and the tying run was in scoring position. But Zeile fouled out and the O's were down to their last out. On a 1-2 count, Alomar stroked a line drive to left, and it was a new game at 3-3. Raffy struck out again to strand the go-ahead runs, and it was up to the bullpen to get it to extras.
Out for a second inning of work, Mathews ran into trouble when he walked Manny Ramirez and failed to direct traffic on a Sandy Alomar infield pop-up. Jesse Orosco would have to bail him out of the two-on, one-out jam. But the 39-year-old lefty was having a miserable series. He had faced seven batters in the previous four games and retired only one. The low point came in Friday's Game Three, when he walked the bases loaded in the seventh inning of a tie game and was replaced by Armando Benitez. Benitez promptly served up a grand slam to Albert Belle, and Jesse was the losing pitcher. Proving he had a short-term memory, the veteran coaxed a grounder from Jose Vizcaino and struck out Lofton to bring on free baseball.
Things remained in a stalemate for two innings, as Indians manager Mike Hargrove stuck with Mesa and Davey Johnson got a bounceback performance from Benitez as well (2 IP, 0 ER, 0 H, 1 BB, 4 K). Surprisingly, Hargrove sent his closer out to begin the 12th - his fourth inning of work. Robbie Alomar led off and dealt the big blow, depositing a Mesa slider into the seats for the go-ahead run. Cal later chased the pitcher with a two-out double, but Chad Ogea pitched around Murray and struck out Mike Devereaux (a defensive sub for Inky in the 10th inning), ensuring that O's closer Randy Myers would come in with no margin for error. Fortunately, he didn't need any cushion, as he set the Tribe down 1-2-3 on 11 pitches, striking out Vizquel looking to send the Birds to their first ALCS since 1983. Of course, they couldn't have done it without the late-inning heroics of the newest Hall of Famer.
Most of the other ex-Orioles on the ballot didn't fare so well, sadly. I will give them their due tomorrow.