CLEVELAND - The baseball season belongs to Sandy Alomar. It answers to his call, and responds to his commands.
The Cleveland catcher has the grand old game eating out of his mitt, and it keeps coming back for more. It has been beyond explanation, and now it is nearly beyond belief. He has set a new standard for career years.
Sunday night, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the indomitable Indian delivered another in an ongoing series of heroic hits - this one a run-scoring single that lifted Cleveland to an 8-7 playoff victory over the Baltimore Orioles.
Having won the All-Star Game's Most Valuable Player award, having rescued the Indians' season four outs away from elimination against New York, Alomar was hard-pressed to top himself. But Sunday, he came close.
Alomar's second-inning home run gave Cleveland its first lead. His fifth-inning single tied the game at 5-5. His hellbent baserunning delivered another run in that inning. And then he won it in the ninth with a drive that short-hopped the wall in left-center field.
With this, Cleveland claimed a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, and a chance to finish off the favored Orioles tonight at Jacobs Field. If there is an encore performance in Alomar, he should skip the World Series and go straight to Cooperstown.
"Somebody's messing with fate, the way I figure it right now," Orioles manager Davey Johnson said.
Despite their dramatic comeback against the Yankees, the Indians did not appear to pose much of an obstacle for the Orioles. Cleveland's pitching compares poorly to Baltimore's, and its offense has been far less fearsome without Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton.
Let the record show that these guys are a whole lot better than advertised.
"It's been unbelievable," Alomar said. "This team has not played like this the whole season. It seems like in post-season, it's been a different team."
Statistically, at least, Alomar has been a lesser player in the playoffs. After setting career standards in nearly every offensive category during the regular season, he had been 0-for-11 in the first three games against the O's.
"I was having a tough series so far, and I felt like I had a long swing," he said. "I came today and tried to shorten my stroke. The first couple of games I was too aggressive. I figured if I relaxed at the plate, I would do a lot better. I figured I was due."
Alomar's futility ceased in the second inning, when he smashed a Scott Erickson slider into the Indians' bullpen in right-center field. The two-run homer put Cleveland ahead 2-1, and matched the Indians' total offensive output in Game Three.
Three Baltimore homers gave the Orioles a 5-2 lead in the third inning, but Cleveland scored a single run in the fourth, and four times in the fifth.
Alomar had an expansive role in this rally. His two-out single drove home Jim Thome with the run that tied the game at 5-5, and his mad dash from second base enabled the Indians to score twice on a single wild pitch by Arthur Rhodes.
"I've seen some strange things happen," Baltimore's Johnson said. "But that's the first time I ever saw two runners score on a play like that. I thought somebody might have had a hold on Rhodes and I might have to got an interference call. I was probably reaching for straws at that point."
Whatever Sandy Alomar is reaching for seems to be within his grasp. With runners at first and second and two outs in the ninth, Alomar tried to use patience to his advantage. He got ahead of Armando Benitez, two balls and one strike, and figured he would then see a fastball.
When it came, he was ready to pounce. Alomar lined a shot to left-center, between B.J. Surhoff and Brady Anderson, and loped around first base with a look of nonchalance. Then he shook his fists in the air to show that it was, indeed, a pretty big deal.
"You come to the ballpark expecting to play Game Seven every day," Sandy Alomar said. "We don't take anything for granted. We play every game like it's the last game."
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