Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians
Steve Eby | On 08, Oct 2014
During the month of October DTTWLN will take a look back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians season—specifically the 18 thrilling games of the postseason as the Indians made an improbable run to game seven of the World Series.
PART TEN: ALCS GAME 1—THE BRADY BUNCH
Just two days after the upstart and underdog Indians defeated the hated New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, they turned their attention to another foe from the American League East—the division champion Baltimore Orioles.
The O’s had worked over the American League all season en route to the league’s best record (98-64) and the second best record in all of baseball. For the entire season and certainly heading into the playoffs, the Orioles were the heavy favorite to win the American League pennant.
Baltimore was determined to take what they felt was rightfully theirs in 1996 by getting revenge and dethroning the defending World Champion Yankees after losing to the Bronx Bombers in a controversial ALCS the year before (New York was awarded a pivotal, series-changing homerun in Game One when a young fan clearly interfered with Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco). As it worked out, however, the Orioles got a date with the Indians in what would turn out to be a bizarre but classic series.
“This team has been more focused,” said Orioles manager Davey Johnson, comparing the 1997 season with the ’96 team in an article by Mark Maske of the Washington Post. “This team came together early…we’re a team that gets along very well together.”
Baltimore was led by future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Roberto Alomar as well as superstars Rafael Palmeiro, Brady Anderson and stud pitchers Mike Mussina and Randy Meyers. They boasted a rotation of solid veteran starters behind Mussina and most viewed the overachieving Tribe as a mere stepping stone on their assumed trip to the World Series.
“Our focus from Day 1 of spring training was to get back here and then go on to the World Series,” Johnson said in the Maske article. “We all assumed it would be New York. They had the second-best record in the league and played well against Cleveland (during the regular season).”
Game One of the series was held at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on October 8 and matched up Orioles veteran pitcher Scott Erickson against third-year Tribe starter Chad Ogea. Erickson started and won Game Two of the ALDS against the Mariners as he was able to outduel soft-tossing left hander Jamie Moyer at Seattle’s Kingdome.
“I’m going to go out there with the same attitude I had against Seattle,” Erickson said in the Maske article. “I’m going to go out there and be aggressive and try to keep the ball in the ballpark.
“I’ll try to throw strikes early, keep the ball down and make them put the ball in play before they get into a hitter’s count.”
Ogea had also made one ALDS appearance, but his was out of the bullpen in Game Three against the Yanks. Chad came in with the bases loaded and Paul O’Neill at the plate and served up a grand slam to the Yankees hottest hitter. After the slam, however, Ogea was able to lock up the Yankee hitters and allowed only one more hit over 5.1 brilliant innings. For the regular season, Ogea (8-9) sported a 2-1 record against Baltimore.
“He’s pitched well a couple of times against the Orioles,” Tribe manager Mike Hargrove said of Ogea in a Sun Sentinal article by Michael Mayo. “He needs to be able to locate his fastball. If he does that, then his changeup and curveball will be more effective.”
The first pitcher to show his stuff was Erickson as he retired both Bip Roberts and Omar Vizquel to lead off the top of the first inning. After that, Erickson got ahead of Manny Ramirez with a 1-2 count before Manny squared up a first inning mistake.
Ramirez blasted the pitch deep into right-centerfield as the centerfielder Anderson raced back to the warning track. Brady, the future Indian, leapt high and scaled the wall, reached his glove over and brought the potential first run back into the park for the third out of the inning. Anderson fell back to the ground and raised his glove high in the air for the standing ovation that the 49,029 Baltimore fans were giving him. Brady then jogged back to the dugout as the fans refused to sit down and Anderson, the O’s leadoff hitter, prepared to face Ogea.
After Ogea finished his warm-up pitches, Anderson dug into the lefthander’s batter’s box. Ogea wound and fired a first pitch curveball to Brady who swung and blasted it deep to right. Ramirez turned and watched the ball sail over the 21-foot-high wall and land just in front of Eutaw Street for a 1-0 Baltimore lead. As TV announcer Jack Buck put it, “It’s been a good five minutes for Brady Anderson.”
The effort from his centerfielder, who was one year removed from an “out-of-nowhere” 50 homerun 1996 season, seemed to light a fire under Erickson. The former Minnesota Twin put up zero after zero on the top line of the scoreboard, allowing only meaningless singles to Dave Justice and Roberts in the second and third innings before the loaded Baltimore offense struck again.
In the bottom of the third, Ogea got shortstop Mike Bordick to groundout to start the inning. Anderson followed with some more hot-hitting as he laced a double down the left field line to put a runner on for the second baseman, Alomar. Sandy’s younger brother got ahead in the count and then turned Ogea’s 3-1 pitch down the right field line and over the wall for the O’s second homerun of the game and a 3-0 Baltimore lead. The sight was a familiar one, as it was a previous Robbie Alomar homerun that put the dagger into the hearts of the 1996 Indians team just over a year prior.
This two run blast seemed to turn the knife in the ’97 Indians for Game One as well. Erickson set down the next 12 hitters that he faced and allowed only an eighth inning single to Matt Williams the rest of his game. Johnson pulled Erickson with the 3-0 lead for the ninth in favor of his closer Myers, who had a career season in ’97.
Myers shut down the Tribe in order in the ninth for the save and, just like the previous series, the Indians were down in a 1-0 hole. The loss marked the fifth straight postseason series that Cleveland started with a loss, dating back to the 1995 ALCS. Ogea and relief pitcher Brian Anderson pitched well (with Ogea only making the two mistakes on the homerun balls), but Erickson was brilliant against the perhaps “hung-over” Indian team that crashed back down to Earth after defeating the Yankees.
“They hit some missiles, but I lucked out tonight,” Erickson said in a Phil Rogers article from the Chicago Tribune. “Every time they hit the ball real hard, it was right at somebody or it carried to the outfield.”
Erickson’s pitch count was at a reasonable 90 when the veteran manager Johnson decided to pull his right hander. It was Johnson’s intent, however, to save Erickson’s arm to come back in Game Four on only three day’s rest.
“It was a logical decision, to tell you the truth,” said Erickson in the Rogers article. “This isn’t the time to concern yourself with personal goals…we’re concentrating on a bigger goal.”
Baltimore’s bigger goal was coming into focus as the Oriole pitchers had been brilliant throughout the postseason. With Erickson’s outstanding effort, Baltimore had held Seattle and Cleveland—the American League’s first and third ranked offenses—to a total of 11 runs in five games.
Erickson was without question the game’s MVP, but it was Anderson who set the tone. When the centerfielder robbed Ramirez’s homerun in the first, all momentum swung to Baltimore and the O’s took over from there.
“And hitting a home run after that probably put an exclamation point on it,” Hargrove said in the Rogers article. “It was a very fine defensive play. Then to come up and hit a first-pitch curveball (for a home run), that’s a nice piece of hitting, also.”
Anderson and Erickson had stolen the momentum from the Tribe, but Game Two loomed the following night for the Tribe to grab it back. The game would match up veterans Charles Nagy and Jimmy Key and would prove to be the stage for a clutch performance of an Indian who had fallen short of expectations all season long.