This American League Championship series ended Wednesday night. And that's really too bad.
Cleveland and Baltimore, for a fifth straight game, had turned simple baseball into something more compelling. And for a fourth and final time, the Indians, apparently blessed by fate, were the winners of a one-run game.
This time it wasn't a passed ball or a wild pitch but a two-out, 11th-inning home run by Tony Fernandez, a last-minute lineup addition, that gave the Indians a 1-0 triumph, a 4-2 margin in the series and their second pennant in three seasons.
"I don't even have to wait for perspective. I can say it right now," said B.J. Surhoff in the gloomy Orioles locker room. "That was a great, phenomenal, unbelievable series. Anyone who saw it can't possibly believe that there's anything wrong with baseball."
Game Six ended at 8:08 p.m. when Roberto Alomar watched a third strike from Jose Mesa. With that, the excitement that had animated Camden Yards all afternoon rushed out of the lovely downtown stadium as quickly as if someone had stuck a pin in the Goodyear blimp that hovered overhead.
"It was such a great year," said Baltimore's Rafael Palmeiro. "We have no reason to hang our heads. We are still a team that's headed up."
When Alomar struck out to end the 3 hours and 52 minutes of excruciatingly tense baseball, the Indians formed a human pile atop Mesa. The celebration -- and the pile -- moved into a clubhouse that soon smelled of cigars, champagne and destiny.
"It's like there's something at work here," said Marquis Grissom, whose three-run homer won Game Two and who, despite four strikeouts Wednesday, was named the Series MVP. "I don't know what it is, but it's an incredible feeling. But it's like they say, you have to be good to be lucky."
Cleveland's Bip Roberts became an inadvertent hero when he was hit on the left thumb by a batting-practice groundball. When Mike Hargrove decided, 30 minutes before the game, that Fernandez would take Roberts' spot, veterans Sandy Alomar and Orel Hershiser approached the new second-baseman.
"Sandy and I went up to Tony and we both told him that God must have wanted him to play a role in this game," said Hershiser, who would have pitched Game Seven for Cleveland and probably will start Game One of the World Series Saturday night in Miami.
Without a world championship since 1948, the Indians now will get a chance against the NL-champion Florida Marlins in a Series that will be hard-pressed to match this one for drama.
"We were supposed to lose to the Yankees and then to these guys," Roberts said. "Now we'll probably be underdogs again to Florida."
Wednesday's goat again was Armando Benitez, the Orioles' often-unhittable right-handed reliever who gave up Grissom's series-turning Game Two homer. Knowing his 2-0 pitch to Fernandez was destined for the right-field seats, the Baltimore pitcher dropped his head on the mound and never looked.
"He hung a forkball to Fernandez and that wasn't typical of his year," said Baltimore manager Davey Johnson. "As far as I'm concerned he had a phenomenal year, as good as anyone in baseball."
The Orioles' loss means that they and the Atlanta Braves, two dollar-drenched teams that compiled baseball's best records this season, will be watching the World Series at home.
"I'll think about this for a while," Johnson said. "This whole series, I didn't think we caught many breaks."
No one was more luckless than Mike Mussina, who struck out 25 Indians in two brilliant starts that the Orioles ended up losing. The Orioles ace struck out 10 Wednesday and allowed only a fifth-inning double to David Justice. This performance followed Saturday's record 15-strikeout outing -- a game Cleveland won on a missed squeeze bunt in the 12th inning.
"Mike was unbelievable," said Johnson, who lifted him after 109 pitches and eight innings. "That was all I could ask of him. I knew he was pretty much pooped."
The Indians feared facing Mussina in the midafternoon shadows. But on an overcast afternoon, it turned out they had nothing to fear but Mussina himself.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, they fared no better against Indians starter Charles Nagy, despite collecting nine hits and three walks in 7 1/3 innings against him.
The Orioles stranded eight runners in the first five innings, but their best opportunity came in the seventh inning of the scoreless game. Singles by Mike Bordick and Brady Anderson gave the Orioles runners at first and second with no outs.
Alomar tried to bunt them up a base, but the Indians employed the rotation play perfectly and Matt Williams forced Bordick at third. Geronimo Berroa then bounced into a double play.
"I don't usually like to bunt and I went against my better judgement there," Johnson said. "I tip my hat to Hargrove to run the (rotation play) in that situation."
When the ninth began, Johnson replaced Mussina with closer Randy Myers. The Indians got runners to first and second with one out before Myers struck out Justice and Williams.
The Baltimore crowd, chastised by players and the press for being too laid back and quiet, was on its feet screaming at every pitch.
Finally in the 11th, after Grissom struck out and Omar Vizquel (1 for 24 in the series) bounded out to short, Benitez fell behind Fernandez.
"Kevin Seitzer was lying flat on his stomach in the clubhouse at that point, praying that Tony would hit one out," said Hershiser.
He did. As if, in this marvelous run of Indians baseball, there was ever any doubt.