Today’s Postseason Series From The Baseball Project That May Or May Not Amount To Anything is the 1997 American League Championship Series. The Baltimore Orioles were the best team in the American League in 1997, winning 98 games while allowing a league low 4.2 runs per game. The team’s pitching staff was anchored by a strong four man starting group. Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Jimmy Key, and Scott Kamieniecki all posted ERA’s better than the league average in 130 starts (six others combined for the remaining 32). The bullpen featured veteran Randy Myers as the closer, saving 45 games and posting a 1.51 ERA backing setup men Arthur Rhodes (9.6 K/9), and Armando Benitez (13.0 K/9). The lineup was strong as well, scoring over five runs per game. While not his fluke-1996, Brady Anderson still provided a 128 OPS+ to go along with Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar’s 134 OPS+. As a side story, former all-star Eric Davis was recovering from colon cancer and – despite receiving treatment at the time – managed to put up a 130 OPS+ in 42 games.
Despite the best record, it took until the second last day of the season to win the division, fending off the defending champion Yankees by two games (though they already had clinched a wild card berth). In the division series Baltimore beat the Seattle Mariners in four games, toppling the mighty Randy Johnson twice.
The Cleveland Indians were underachievers in 1997. After winning 199 games the previous two years, slugger Albert Belle signed a big money contract and fled to Chicago. To lessen the hole Belle left in the lineup the Indians traded for Giants third baseman Matt Williams and moved Jim Thome from third to first. Then, right before the regular season started, the Indians surprised the baseball world by trading their all-star center fielder Kenny Lofton to the Atlanta Braves for Marquis Grissom and David Justice. Lofton was a free agent after the season, but the timing of the trade threw everyone for a loop. The lineup remained the strength of the team, finishing third in the league in runs, but the pitching staff had fallen off greatly. The previous two years they led the league in ERA but in 1997 they plummeted down to ninth. One player that was a pleasant surprise was former Rookie of the Year Sandy Alomar. Injuries and a lack of plate discipline (.309 career OBP) hampered his career, but in 1997 he was healthy and he had his best year ever. Alomar hit .324/.354/.545 with a 128 OPS+, a 30-game hitting streak, and the All-Star Game MVP – the first player to win the award in his home park. Luckily they benefited from playing in a weak division – they were the only team that finished above .500 and despite 86 wins they took their third straight AL Central crown.
In the division series they trailed the Yankees two games to one and were down 2-1 in Game 4 until Alomar homered off of Mariano Rivera in the eighth – one of only two homeruns Rivera would surrender in the postseason in his entire career – to tie the game, giving the Tribe a chance to win in the ninth. They did win, and won Game 5 to punch their ticket to the ALCS.
Game 1 was in Baltimore, pitting Chad Ogea against Scott Erickson. It didn’t take long for the Orioles to get started as Brady Anderson led off the bottom of the first with a homerun and a quick 1-0 lead. Then in the third Anderson hit a one-out double and Robbie Alomar homered over the high wall in right for a 3-0 lead. That was all Erickson needed as he went eight innings allowing four hits and no walks. Randy Myers finished off the ninth to complete the shutout, 3-0, and the O’s had a 1-0 series lead.
Game 2 seemed like another mismatch in Baltimore’s favor as Charles Nagy started against lefty Jimmy Key. But the Indians got the early jump in the first as Omar Vizquel was hit by a pitch with one out and then Manny Ramirez homered to center and the Indians were up, 2-0. That lead didn’t last, though, as in the third Rafael Palmeiro doubled to lead off and moved to third on B.J. Surhoff’s fly out. That was trivial, though as Ripken homered to tie the game at 2-2.
It remained tied until the sixth. Palmeiro singled and Ripken added another after a fielders choice. Then Chris Hoiles walked to load the bases with two outs. Then Mike Bordick (59 OPS+ that season) singled to score a pair and chase Nagy from the game. The Orioles now led, 4-2.
Things looked bleak for the Tribe as they went to the eighth. Young fireballer Armando Benitez went to the mound for Baltimore and immediately struck out Jeff Branson to begin. Sandy Alomar walked then Tony Fernandez struck out. Jim Thome came in to pinch hit for Kevin Seitzer* and drew another walk. Grissom stepped in to face Benitez and launched a slider over the center field wall and just like that the Indians led, 5-4.
*-Yes, Mike Hargrove decided to keep one of his two best hitters on the bench solely because a lefty was on the mound and in favor of Kevin Seitzer. Let’s just say that members of my family had a lot to say about this decision.
The Indians bullpen finished the eighth and ninth to finish the game and even series 1-1. Now things were about to get weird.
Game 3 featured Mike Mussina and Orel Hersisher on the hill. The 4:17 start time provided some difficulty for the hitters as the shadows cast over home plate would make finding the ball difficult. Or at least it seemed as Mussina mowed through the Indians lineup, striking out 15 of the 26 hitters he faced. The Orioles didn’t find much more luck, striking out seven times against Hershiser as the game was scoreless for the first six innings.
In the bottom of the seventh Thome drew a one-out walk and David Justice single to center. Matt Williams then hit a ground ball just out of Bordick’s reach for an RBI single and the Tribe had a 1-0 lead.
The game remained 1-0 until the top of the ninth. With Tribe closer Jose Mesa on the hill, Chris Hoiles led off with a single and in a double switch Jeff Reboulet pinch ran for Hoiles and Lenny Webster pinch hit for Bordick. Webster then hit into a fielders choice that should have been a double play, but Tony Fernandez didn’t tag Reboulet – while practically tripping over him as he slid down to avoid the tag/break up the double play even though he was 50 feet away from second – and Thome’s relay throw back to second hit Reboulet and he reached safely. Today Reboulet would’ve been called out and NBA refs would be reviewing this play to decide if he should be ejected. Then Brady Anderson hit a routine fly ball into center. Marquis Grissom somehow lost the ball and it ended up 20 feet behind him. Instead of two outs and a runner on second it was one out with a tie game and a runner on second. Mesa worked his way out of the inning, bringing up the ninth.
After a flawless eighth Armando Benitez off the ninth by walking Manny Ramirez. Noah’s close friend Jesse Orosco took the mound in relief. Now, those of us that remember that team remember that Manny was no genius on the base paths. After a couple of throws to first and Thome squaring to bunt twice* Orosco picked Manny off of first. What made this especially aggravating for the Indians was Thome subsequently walked and Williams singled to left with two out.. Instead of a worst case scenario of bases loaded and one out, you had first and second and two out. Needless to say that the Orioles got out of the inning and we were on our way to extras.
*-Jim Thome’s career numbers to this point: .288/.408/.541/.950, 145 OPS+. And Hargrove actually had him square to bunt. Needless to say I was ready to throw everything I owned into the TV at this point.
After an uneventful tenth Jeff Juden came in to relieve Mesa in the 11th and struck out the first two batters he faced. Then Brady Anderson walked and stole second. Robbie Alomer got his second straight intentional free pass and Lenny Webster then hit weak roller down the third base line. Williams was playing deep and along the line therefore did not have a chance at getting Webster and the bases were loaded. This brought in lefty Alvin Morman to face Rafael Palmeiro. After a few foul balls Morman got Palmeiro to swing and miss to end the inning.
In the bottom half of the inning Arthur Rhodes walked Vizquel to lead off then gave up a single to right to Ramirez (great graphic from Fox: Manny Ramirez’s last sac bunt was May 7, 1995. I bet it stayed that way, too. Again, I’m just shaking my head), putting runners on first and second with nobody out*. Then came some controversy. Davey Johnson walked out with the trainer to check on Rhodes for an injury visit. Hargrove went out to complailn that Johnson should not have been out there, claiming that he could be talking to his infield. Then Hargrove pinch hit for Thome with Seitzer**.
*-I’m not exactly sure if Vizquel should’ve been on third or not, but of the many aspects of his game that were overrated, speed was definitely one of them.
**-Kevin Seitzer’s career 108 OPS+ against lefties does not justify benching one of the game’s best hitters, handidness be damned. But then, why would you let one of the game’s best hitters hit when you can take his bat out of the lineup and have a weaker hitter give away an out? Why did I say ‘yes, I’ll write about this one!”? I told you this series got weird.
Seitzer quickly fell behind 0-2, eliminating the bunt, then . . .
Well, a wild pitch that didn’t go anywhere as Webster lost sight of it got Vizquel to third (no one ever overrated Manny’s abilities on the bases). Then Randy Myers came in to attempt to finish off Seitzer. Ripken made a fantastic play on Seitzer’s grounder down the line to get the out and keep the game going. The Justice’s line drive to Surhoff didn’t do anything because he was playing shallow. Williams walked but Sandy Alomar struck out to end the threat. Eric Plunk pitched around a two-out double to get through the 12th scoreless and we went to the bottom of the 12th.
After Brian Giles struck out to lead off the inning Marquis Grissom drew a walk and with some aggressive base running took third on Tony Fernandez’s single to right. Omar Vizquel stepped to the plate with runners on the corners and just one out. As Joe Buck put “opening up a world of possibilities. . .” Oh if he only knew . . .
The first pitch was in the dirt for ball one. The second one was outside, 2-0. Vizquel then fouled the next pitch off of Webster to make the count 2-1. As they checked on Webster, McCarver stated “If you’re gonna put the squeeze on now’s a good time to do it.” Well . . .
Vizquel put out the weakest attempt for a squeeze play you will ever see. If he was trying to get the bat on it . . . Well, I don’t know if he was trying or not. It appeared initially that he fouled it off and Lenny Webster – who no one will ever confuse with Charles Johnson, Gary Carter, or Johnny Bench – dropped it. He casually went and picked it up as Grissom just kept running. As Buck called it, “In comes Grissom. The Indians win, Vizquel missed it!”
An important thing to note is that home plate umpire John Hirshbeck never signaled a foul ball and plainly points out it’s a live ball. Davey Johnson ran out to argue, his reasoning being that Hirshbeck should’ve asked for help. I don’t know who in science’s name had a better angle than him, but I guess it was worth the argument. Tim McCarver thought at first that it was a foul ball. McCarver also (properly) pointed out that if Webster simply holds onto the ball he’s got Grissom by a country mile. McCarver actually summed it up best: “Unbelievable.” The game was decided by a missed suicide squeeze. The official scorer stated it as a steal of home, then a passed ball, then finally a steal of home (at least that’s what baseball-reference.com has it officially as), and then we joined “America’s Most Wanted” already in progress.
Game 4 had the Erickson going for the second time against rookie Jaret Wright. Wright got the first five Orioles, then Ripken singled and B.J. Surhoff doubled into the alley in right-center to score Ripken for an early 1-0 lead. The lead didn’t last long as David Justice led off the bottom of the second with a single and one out later Sandy Alomar homered and the Indians were up 2-1. In the top of the third Brady Anderson homered with one out to tie the game. Then after Robbie Alomar walked and Geronimo Berroa grounded out, 81-year old Harold Baines homered to give the Orioles the lead. Rafael Palmeiro followed that up with a homerun of his own and after Wright somehow got out of the inning the Orioles led 5-2.
The Indians got one back in the fourth when with two out Brian Giles doubled and Grissom singled to center and it was 5-3 Orioles. Then with one out in the bottom of the fifth Manny Ramirez crushed one into the seats in left-center and it was 5-4. Thome and Justice then singled and after Williams struck out Alomar singled to score Thome and tie the game at 5-5, sending Justice to third in the process. Just like that Erickson’s night was done and in came Arthur Rhodes. It didn’t get much better for Rhodes as he walked Giles to load the bases, bringing Grissom up. Rhodes then threw a ball in the dirt that kicked away from the frying pan of a glove that was Lenny Webster and rolled down the third base line. Justice scampered home to try to score and as he slid in he arrived at the same time as Webster’s throw to Rhodes came and his feet were right were the ball was and it was kicked away. As both Rhodes went after the ball and Webster stared aimlessly they left home uncovered and Alomar hustled around score*. There was some controversy about Justice interfering with Webster, but Webster actually ducked down before Justice ever got there.
*-Last year in the World Series the Indians scored two runs on a wild pitch against the Cubs. In 1995 they did it against the Mariners. In my lifetime the Indians have scored six runs on three wild pitches in the postseason. I doubt any person can make a claim like that.
Rhodes finished up the inning, but the Indians were now ahead 7-5. After wasting a leadoff single in the sixth, the Indians gave up a run in the seventh when Geronimo Berroa scored Brady Anderson with a single. Then in the ninth Jose Mesa came in and walked Robbie Alomar then gave up a single to Berroa, moving Alomar to third. After striking out Eric Davis, Mesa couldn’t make a play on Palmeiro’s weak chopper and the game was tied. He got the next two out but blew the save.
In the bottom of the ninth Ramirez drew yet another walk. Jesse Orosco was brought in and AGAIN Kevin Seitzer was brought in to pinch hit for Jim Thome. Seitzer promptly bunted Manny to second, bringing up the lefty Justice to face the lefty Orosco with one out. Justice flew out to center, meaning the Indians now needed a two-out hit to win. With two righties coming up Davey Johnson went to Armando Benitez. He promptly walked Matt Williams (meaning Manny would’ve been on second anyway), then Sandy Alomar continued his magical season with a line shot into left-center to score Ramirez and give the Indians an 8-7 win and 3-1 series lead.
Game 5 had Scott Kamieniecki going against Chad Ogea with the hope of extending the Orioles’ season. Baltimore struck first in the third when they loaded the bases with two out and Geronimo Berroa singled to score Hoiles and Anderson, but the Indians got out of it when Thome threw out Robbie Alomar trying to get to third.
That seemed to ball all Orioles needed as Kamieniecki combined with Jimmy Key for eight shutout innings. Then Eric Davis homered in the ninth and Cal Ripken added an RBI single to make it 4-0. The Indians got the tying runs in scoring position with two outs, but Randy Myers got Vizquel to ground out and the series was now 3-2 Indians and returning to Baltimore.
Let’s get Game 6 started with what was going on before Game 6. Not in Baltimore, but in Kirtland, Ohio. I had an engineering final that was scheduled for 4:00 on Wednesday, October 15. Game 6 was scheduled to start at 4:15. This clearly created a conflict of interest for most people.
But not me.
I walked in at 3:50 pm that day and walked up to the professor. Here was the conversation:
Me: Hey. If I completely bomb this thing, what’s my grade?
Prof: Well, I don’t know . . .
Me: C’mon. You’ve got the grade book, you’ve got a calculator right there, what is it?
Prof: Well . . . (takes about two minutes to calculate everything) you’d have an 84.7%.
Me: So a B-.
I had to be in attendance to get a grade, so I sat there until he handed out the final. I was given the stapled sheets, signed my name at the top, got up, walked up to his desk, handed it in, and left. I treated the I-90 street sign like it was the speed limit sign on my way home. I parked the car in the driveway, sprinted into the house and to the couch where my brother was sitting. As I came in my mother asked “How’d your test go?” to which I responded “I got a B-. (now looking at my brother) Did I miss anything?”
Charles Nagy was on the hill for the Indians and Mike Mussina was starting for the Orioles. Before the game during BP Tony Fernandez hit a line drive that hit Bip Roberts in the wrist. Roberts was listed as out for the game and Fernandez was name his replacement at second. This would loom big later on.
Mussina retired the side in order in the first. Nagy gave up a leadoff walk, then got a double play ball, then gave up a double and a walk before striking out Palmeiro to end the inning. Mussina retired the side in order in the second. Nagy gave up a leadoff single, got two pop outs, allowed a double, then got Brady Anderson to ground out to keep the game scoreless. In the first four innings the Orioles had seven base runners, the Indians none. David Justice got a leadoff double, but a couple of strikeouts by Mussina erased that with little trouble. Nagy pitched around a couple of two-out singles and it was still scoreless after five.
Both teams went in order in the sixth. Then Mussina pitched around a two-out walk to Justice to keep it scoreless. In the bottom of the seventh things got real tense in our house.
Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson hit back to back singles to lead off the inning, bringing Robbie Alomar to the plate. Hargrove called time and set up his defense. It worked perfectly. Alomar bunted the ball to Matt Williams who turned and fired to a covering Vizquel in time to get the force out at third and keep the double play in line. Sure enough Geronimo Berroa hit a grounder in in the hole where Matt Williams grabbed it and started the 5-4-3 double play and a possible big inning for the Orioles was averted by the Tribe.
Mussina pitched around a two-out walk to Brian Giles to get through the eighth, then the Orioles threatened again. With one out Nagy hit Rafael Palmeiro and Jeffrey Hammonds pinch ran for Raffy. Hammonds stole second and Nagy ended up walking Cal Ripken on four pitches. His day was done. 65-year old Paul Assenmacher came in and got a fielder’s choice out of B.J. Surhoff and was replaced by pop music sensation Michael Jackson. Jackson got Chris Hoiles to ground out to third and again, the Indians avoided trouble.
In the ninth Randy Myers took over for Mussina – who quite frankly pitched phenomenally in the series; probably should’ve been the ALCS MVP – and the Indians had a first for the day. Tony Fernandez had a one out single and Manny Ramirez walked and for the first time all game the Indians had two base runners in one inning. Didn’t matter because Myers struck out Justice and Williams to end the threat. Jackson pitched around a two-out walk of his own to keep the game scoreless and again we were into extra innings. Myers retired the side in order in the tenth and Tribe local kid Brian Anderson pitched a scoreless frame of his own. Then in the 11th the Orioles brought on – again – Armando Benitez.
Benitez got Marquis Grissom to strikeout swinging and easily fielded a bunt attempt by Omar Vizquel and quickly there were two out with Tony Fernandez due up. Remember earlier when I wrote that Fernandez was a last second replacement because a line drive he hit knocked Bip Roberts out of the lineup? Well, here was his moment. The very first pitch he got from Benitez was a fastball and he turned on it, dropped his bat, dropped his head, started clapping his hands and started trotting the bases. Joe Buck’s call:
“That’s well hit IN THE AIR TO RIGHT. TRACK! WALL! GONE! And the Indians take a 1-0 11th inning lead.”
The crowd was stunned. Hell, everyone was stunned. The whole game nothing seemed to carry and then just one shot into right and someone finally broke through.
In the bottom of the 11th, Jose Mesa came in to finish it off. He struck out Hoiles swinging, then got one of the two series goats, Lenny Webster to ground out to him. Brady Anderson then hit a rocket off the wall in right that was hit so hard he only got a single out of it. Bringing up Robbie Alomar. Robbie worked the count full then Mesa delivered a fastball inside – too inside, honestly – but got the call for strike three and the Indians were on their way to the World Series for the second time in three years.
Afterwards Lenny Webster had some choice words about the series, particularly about Vizquel. Still fuming about the result of Game 3, Webster believed fully that Vizquel did foul the missed squeeze bunt off and felt that he “should be a man” and admit it. First, even if he admitted it, that wouldn’t change the result. Second, I’m not sure what there is to admit. There is little if any evidence that he fouled it off. Third, Webster had an absolutely horrific series. Besides the several miscues on the field, he was only 2-9 with a couple of singles in the six games. In a series where only 37 total runs were scored between both teams (the Orioles actually outscored the Indians 19-18) with four of the six games being one-run games, luck plays a big factor. When that’s the case you have to limit your mistakes. Webster did not do that.
As for Armando Benitez, he actually went on to have a good major league career. He saved 289 games, had a 3.13 ERA, and struck out 946 batters in 779.0 innings. Against the Indians for his career he actually pitched very well. The Tribe only hit .178/.291/.277 in 117 plate appearances against him. But in 1996 he face Albert Belle with the bases loaded in Game 3 of the ALDS and Belle smacked a grand slam to break a 4-4 tie. The in the ALCS he gave up the game winning hits in three of the four losses. For those two seasons he pitched only seven innings against the Tribe in the playoffs. He gave up three homeruns was charged with five runs (three of the four on Belle’s grand slam weren’t charged, nor was the game winner on Alomar’s hit). Yes, he struck out 12, but he also walked six. He had a solid major league career, but I’m willing to bet he doesn’t care to see that Indians uniform.
The Indians would lose the World Series in seven games to the Florida Marlins in agonizing fashion. They would win three more division titles in the next four years and reach the ALCS in 1998, but it would be 19 years until their next crack at the World Series. As for the Orioles, Davey Johnson and Orioles owner Peter Angelos never got along and after butting heads for the final time Johnson resigned as manager on the same day he was named AL Manager of the Year. One thing that is forgotten about the Orioles is that they were an old team. Seven of the eight regulars were over 30 as was the average age of the team. In 1998 they regressed to 79-83, starting a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons (nine with at least 90 losses), easily their worst run since arriving in Baltimore in 1954.