Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians

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.


Game Five of the 1997 American League Championship Series was played on the evening of October 13 at Jacobs Field in Cleveland.  Baltimore’s starter for the evening, Scott Kamieniecki, had become a solid number four starter for the Orioles over the course of the regular season, but was left out of the starting rotation for their postseason run and had not made a start since a September 24th victory in Toronto.  Due to the large number of quality, veteran starters in Baltimore, Kamieniecki was put in the bullpen and his only appearance had been his three shutout innings in relief of Jimmy Key against the Indians in Game Two.

After Key struggled through his first couple starts of the playoffs, Baltimore Manager Davey Johnson decided to go with Kamieniecki rather than Key to start Game Five, a game that Baltimore needed to win.  The decision turned out to be a brilliant one for the Orioles, who were down three games to one and facing elimination for the first time all postseason.

Opposing Kamieniecki was Chad Ogea, who started Game One and took the loss against the Orioles at Camden Yards in Baltimore.  Ogea, like the O’s starter for the evening, had been a starter for the majority of the regular season, but was sent to the ‘pen for the ALDS against the Yankees.  Ogea was making his second start of the postseason and third appearance overall.

Ogea started brilliantly by setting the Orioles down scoreless in the top of the first before Kamieniecki started setting off some fireworks.  Second baseman Bip Roberts led off the bottom of the first by lining a double down the left field line to give the Indians a runner in scoring position immediately.  After Omar Vizquel failed to lay down a bunt and fouled off strike three, the red hot Manny Ramirez dug in to face the Orioles right hander.

Kamieniecki fired a fastball toward Ramirez that struck the star slugger in the left shoulder.  Ramirez dropped his bat and glared out toward the pitcher before making his slow walk to first.  Manny barked out at the right hander and Kamieniecki waved his hand dismissively at Ramirez.  When Ramirez reached first base, umpires stood between he and Kamieniecki, as Manny seemed ready to fight.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the situation seemed to cool Kamieniecki down as well.  The O’s starter retired Jim Thome and David Justice to end the inning and escape the early jam with no damage.

“(Ramirez) kind of got on me and said some things that kind of ticked me off,” Kamieniecki said in an article from the Washington Post by Mark Maske. “I just tried to stay out of a big inning and I was fortunate to make a few big pitches.”

Big pitches then became the norm for both pitchers for most of the ballgame, as Kamieniecki and Ogea locked horns in another pitcher’s duel.

Through the first two innings, the game remained scoreless and both pitchers seemed to be on cruise control.  The Orioles then broke the scoreless tie in the top of the third, as a slew of future Indians gave the O’s new life in the series.

Baltimore catcher Chris Hoiles lined a one out single to left field to start the rally, but Ogea then struck out Mike Bordick for the second out.  Future Indian Brady Anderson then lined a single to right, moving Hoiles to third and putting runners at the corners.  A walk to another future Indian, Roberto Alomar, followed to load the bases.  Next, Geronimo Berroa, who would don a Cleveland uniform in 1998, ripped a ground ball back up the middle and into centerfield.  Both Hoiles and Anderson scored on the play and Alomar made a hard turn and sprinted toward third as Marquis Grissom’s throw sailed toward home plate.  Fortunately for the Indians, Thome cutoff the throw and fired a strike to Matt Williams at third base, getting Alomar for the third out of the inning.

Having been handed a 2-0 lead, Kamieniecki buckled down and shut down the Indians through the fifth.  He escaped jams in both the third and fourth innings, with a combined four Indians reaching base but none coming around to touch home.  In the fifth, Kamieniecki struck out Roberts and Vizquel and then got Ramirez to ground out weakly to Cal Ripken at third base.  When Kamieniecki got back to the dugout after the inning, he complained to pitching coach Ray Miller that his elbow was bothering him.

With Kamieniecki cruising and not being able to afford a loss, Johnson had a big decision to make.  Should he allow his starter to fight through the pain, or should he bring in the struggling Key?

Johnson ultimately decided that bringing in Key was the correct choice.  It was a decision that also did not sit well with Kamieniecki.

“It was really a tough decision, but I don’t mess with an elbow,” Johnson said in a Larry Stone article from the Seattle Times.  “If a guy says his elbow is acting up, I don’t want him out there.  It can be career-threatening.  I know Scott was really upset with my decision, but sending him back out is not something I felt comfortable with.”

What Johnson, Kamieniecki and the entire Oriole organization must have felt comfortable with, was the performance of Key.  The veteran lefthander, who was making his first appearance out of the bullpen since he came in for Toronto in the deciding game of the 1992 World Series, dominated the Tribe hitters by throwing three hitless innings and taking the 2-0 Baltimore advantage into the ninth inning.

Thankfully for the Tribe, Ogea had been matching both Kamieniecki and Key pitch for pitch.  Since allowing the two runs in the second inning, Ogea only allowed two Baltimore hits, both of which were meaningless singles and kept the Indians in the ballgame.  As it turns out, however, Ogea was pulled from the game after the eighth inning in favor of Paul Assenmacher and Chad was on the short end of the stick despite pitching a masterpiece just like he did in Game One.

For as much trouble as Baltimore had squaring up Ogea’s pitches, the exact opposite was true of Assenmacher’s.  Pinch hitter Eric Davis put a dagger into the hearts of the Indians as he blasted a leadoff homerun into the bleachers in left field to start the ninth inning.  The homerun was somewhat of a feel-good story for everyone but Tribe fans, as Davis had been battling colon cancer and had undergone chemotherapy just three days earlier.

“That made a lot of us very happy, because of what he’s been through,” Johnson said in the Stone article.  “All of us were tickled he made a big contribution.”  It was a big contribution and a big hit off of Assenmacher whose bad day was just beginning.

Rafael Palmeiro crushed Assenmacher’s very next pitch for a double that skipped off of the centerfield wall.  He then scored when Ripken laced a single to left, making the score a daunting 4-0 in favor of the Orioles.  B.J. Surhoff followed Ripken with another single and Assenmacher’s poor performance was over.  Hargrove turned the ball over to Mike Jackson, who struck out Hoiles and got Bordick to ground into an inning ending
double play to put out the fire that Assenmacher had started.  The damage had been done, however, and the Indians had one more chance to mount a comeback.

During the 1997 playoffs, the Cleveland Indians had a ‘never say die’ mentality though.  As Johnson took the ball from Key and turned it over to his struggling closer Randy Myers, the Tribe bats put the scare of a lifetime into Baltimore.

Justice started the bottom of the ninth by grounding a single through the right side for a base hit.  He came all the way around to score as the next batter, Williams, crushed a double down the left field line to give the Tribe their first run of the game.

Sandy Alomar, the following batter, flew out to right field for the first out, but then Tony Fernandez drove home Williams with another single.  With two runs in and Fernandez on first, the tying run was now at the plate in the form of Grissom.

Grissom tapped a slow roller toward the mound that sent Fernandez to third, and by the time Myers could field the ball, the speedy Grissom was safe at first.  The potential winning run now came to the plate with only one out and runners at the corners.

Myers did buckle down and got Roberts to strike out for the second out of the inning as Grissom stole second base.  Only needing a single to tie the game, Vizquel was unable to come through as he grounded out routinely to Alomar at second base to end the ballgame.

The final score was 4-2 in favor of Baltimore, and the Orioles crept back into the series as the Indians lead was now cut to 3-2.  Games Six and Seven were scheduled to be played in Baltimore after a travel day, and the Orioles had their two best pitchers scheduled to start; Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson.  The Baltimore pitchers were the highlight of Game Five as well, as Kamieniecki and Key were both outstanding.

“This ballclub was loose,” Johnson said in the Maske article.  “It felt very confident.  We came up on the short end three times.  [But] I knew we’d get a good performance from Kamieniecki.  The bonus was Jimmy Key.”

“Both of them did incredible jobs in a game where if we lose, we’re gone,” Palmeiro agreed.

Key, who took being sent to the bullpen like a professional, was finally happy to contribute in a positive way.  “That wasn’t the guy who’s been struggling for his last 15 starts,” Key said in the Stone article.  “I’ve been struggling for a while, and that’s been disappointing to me.  Just being able to contribute was important…Going to the bullpen was a bitter pill to swallow.  It felt very weird coming in like that, but I had to make the most of it.”

“I was hoping I didn’t pitch in this game because that probably would mean we were three or four runs behind,” Key added in Maske’s piece.  “I was shocked.  I was like, ‘Why would I get up [in the bullpen]? Scott’s got five shutout innings.’”

Key was dominant and was really only involved in two “jams”.  Key walked Williams with two outs in the sixth, but survived as Alomar swung on a 3-0 count and flew out to end the inning.  The only other real life the Indians showed against him was in the seventh, when Grissom blasted a Key pitch deep to centerfield, but Anderson was able to track it down and make a nice running catch.

For Ogea, his performance was nearly as good but was lost in the performances of the Baltimore duo.  “The only difference in the two [starting pitchers] was that Ogea made one bad pitch and Kamieniecki didn’t,” Indians Manager Mike Hargrove said in the Maske article.  Despite his club having a 3-2 lead, Hargrove was certainly not counting his chickens before they hatched.

“As crazy as this series has been, I don’t know how you can feel confident about anything.  We know we have our work cut out for us in Baltimore.  We’d rather be in our position than their position, but we know they have a very good ballclub.”


Photo: Baltimore Sun

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