SEATTLE - The ball hung in the air just long enough for hope. It was beyond the reach of mortal men, but giving chase was Ken Griffey Jr.
He raced across the outfield after Roberto Alomar's fly ball, chewing up ground in great, big strides, and arrived at the wall at full gallop, his back turned toward home plate. He leaped into the padding and extended his golden glove, where so many doubles have gone to die.
Only this time the ball bounced free. In a season that has flowed like one long, highlight film, Griffey's final reel may prove a mite frustrating.
Seattle's sure-thing Most Valuable Player narrowly missed Alomar's drive Thursday afternoon, and his brief playoff run is rapidly approaching a roadblock. Baltimore bombed the Mariners for the second straight day by a score of 9-3, and their best-of-five American League Division Series returns to Maryland all but academic.
Griffey's near-miss might not have stopped Baltimore's ongoing onslaught, but it was as close as this series has come to a turning point. In the space of Alomar's fifth-inning plate appearance, the Mariners lost their starting pitcher, a critical foul tip and a 2-1 lead. Sometimes, a baseball blowout is built on a single at-bat.
Pitcher's ache, Birds' break
Seattle starter Jamie Moyer had finessed the Orioles for 4ö innings. The mighty Mariners had given him two first-inning runs on efficient ground outs, and only a solo home run by Harold Baines had cut into his breathing room.
But after a bloop single by Mike Bordick with two outs in the fifth inning, Moyer felt an ache in his left elbow while walking Brady Anderson. He would throw one more pitch to Alomar - a sailing fastball for ball one - and was gone.
"The pitch he threw to Alomar, he didn't even finish the pitch off," Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. "I went out and checked with him and he said his elbow was tender. He wanted to finish the hitter off, but it's basically the same thing he had this spring."
The doctors diagnosed it as a strained flexor muscle, and the Orioles recognized it as an enormous break. Their goal in this series was to get into Piniella's bullpen and prevent Seattle's left-handed starters from dominating the proceedings.
The Birds couldn't have been any better off had they been following a blueprint. Moyer allowed five hits in his 4ö innings. His relievers yielded nine hits in 4 1/3 innings - including five doubles and an Anderson home run.
"We don't like to see anybody get hurt," said Orioles manager Davey Johnson. "But personally, I was glad to see him (Moyer) go."
Close doesn't count
Moyer's place on the mound was taken by Paul Spoljaric, who might have escaped the inning unscathed had Seattle catcher Dan Wilson been able to hold Alomar's foul tip when the count reached 2-and-2.
Afforded a second chance, Alomar drove Spoljaric's 3-and-2 pitch toward the wall in left-center. Besides Griffey, maybe Anaheim's Jim Edmonds or Atlanta's Kenny Lofton could have contemplated a catch. The rest of baseball plays the ball off the wall.
"Watching Junior and knowing Junior, anything you hit out there could be catchable," Alomar said. "I thank God that he didn't."
"Did I expect Junior to catch it?" Spoljaric said later. "The guy's only human. I thought it was unbelievable that he got to the ball. I thought 'holy smokes.' I really thought he had it.
"Then I saw the ball bouncing around out there and I look at him and he's all (hacked) off and I'm wondering, 'What is he (hacked) off about?"
Griffey had watched two runs score on the play, and perhaps he saw the series slipping from his grasp. He answered questions afterward in a voice as soft as a snowflake, with long pauses between clauses, wondering himself how close he had come.
"I just hit the wall and it bounced out," he said. "It hit the bottom of my glove. I don't know what hit where first. It was bang-bang. I won't know if I hit the wall (first) till I see the replay."
The replays revealed a heroic effort. The scoreboard says the Mariners must do better.
AP PLAYOFF COVERAGE: AL | NL