KANSAS CITY, Mo.
The slogan for the 2000 Kansas City Royals is, “You gotta like these guys.”
The slogan for the 2000 Baltimore Orioles might be, “Please don’t hate these guys.”
You do have to like the Royals. They are the anti-Orioles, a team of young, talented stars like Carlos Beltran and Mike Sweeney that plays hard and fast and with an enthusiasm that has landed it on “SportsCenter” for four straight nights, celebrating winning a game on its last at-bat.
The first three came on walk-away home runs, the first Monday against Minnesota and the next two capping rallies to beat Baltimore. Thursday at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals’ home plate ritual took place after Beltran singled home Rey Sanchez who had beaten the Orioles the night before with a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to break a 5-5 tie in, yes, the bottom of the ninth.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Royals infielder Jeff Reboulet, a former Oriole who is lucky to still be able to recognize fun after spending his last two seasons in Baltimore.
If you are scoring in the small market vs. big market category, that’s three for the $20 million payroll team and zero for the $81 million payroll team.
Three for Wal-Mart and zero for Saks’ Fifth Avenue.
Now, after starting out with a 5-1 record, Baltimore has lost its last three. Water eventually will seek its level, and so will the Orioles. They continue their descent into small-market hell with three games in Minnesota against the Twins who have even less of a payroll at $16 million. The Twins are not the Royals they are young, and may be enthusiastic, but they are not very talented, and it should be a chance for the Orioles to stop their free fall.
But when you have pitchers like Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes the very reason the word journeyman exists in baseball taking the mound for you like the Orioles do in the next two games, you nearly become the equivalent of the $16 million team. How good can you feel about that?
(Will Clark left Thursday’s game after the fourth inning with back spasms. He managed to play eight games before getting hurt. I throw this item in here just for all of those readers who had Game 9 in the Will Clark Injury Pool.)
The Royals, now 8-3 and battling the Cleveland Indians for the American League Central lead, should be the team to worry about considering where they go next to New York to face the World Series champion Yankees and their $88 million payroll in a three-game series. But, heck, they think they are going to beat the Yankees.
“We are going to win a lot of games this year,” Beltran said. “I know for sure we will play good against the Yankees.”
The Royals believe this because they feel good about their team and about their teammates.
“We have a philosophy on this team,” manager Tony Muser said. “We work hard together and play together. Everyone pulls for each other. That is our approach. This is a close team. They like each other.”
This is one of the benefits of having a group of young players come up together, learn the game together and now, apparently, learn to win together.
“There is no connection in baseball anymore,” Muser said. “No one stays together long enough to fight with each other, to make up with each other and to go to dinner with each other. These guys care about each other and feel they’ve got something to prove.”
The Orioles proved something Thursday. They proved they can lose without blowing a lead after letting wins get away Tuesday with a 3-0 lead and Wednesday with a 6-0 advantage.
They fell behind early 5-0, with Mike Mussina getting rocked for three runs in the first inning, two on a mammoth 444-foot home run by Sweeney. The Orioles came back with four runs in the top of the eighth on a two-run homer by Mike Bordick, a sacrifice fly by Albert Belle and a double steal that resulted in a throwing error by Royals catcher Brian Johnson that allowed Brady Anderson to score.
Still, it was the bullpen (10 runs over 6 and 2/3 innings in the last three games) that failed for a third straight game. After Mussina managed to keep the Royals at five runs over eight innings, allowing the Orioles to get back into the game, B.J. Ryan came in to pitch the top of the ninth. Sanchez singled, moved to second on the sacrifice by Johnny Damon and eventually scored on Beltran’s single.
“We decided to get way behind today and try it a different way,” Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said sarcastically.
It’s a little early for sarcasm. That usually comes much later in the seven signs of a manager’s breakdown right before the optimism runs out.