Seconds before Orioles closer Jim Johnson reared back to throw a ninth-inning, two-out fastball that would undo an entire night's worth of hard work, Melvin Mora had one thought running through his head: Call timeout!
Mora noticed that Cleveland Indians first baseman Andy Marte had opened his stance just a hair and was going to try to crank the next pitch over the left-field fence. In that instant, Mora wanted to freeze frame his pitcher and walk to the mound. He would tell Johnson to relax, take a deep breath and bust Marte inside. The Orioles would then wrap up a much-needed victory.
But Mora was the one who was frozen. He couldn't get the words out in time.
"I was really upset with myself," Mora said.
And so what unfolded next was like a slow-motion nightmare. Johnson left a fastball up in the strike zone, and Marte turned on the pitch and drove it over the left-field wall for a two-strike, two-run home run that gave the Indians a 5-4 victory Thursday night in front of an announced 13,991 at Camden Yards.
Such is life these days for the Orioles (52-76). Even when they play well enough to win, even when they seem to know what's coming, they still can't stop it.
"It was the worst pitch of the entire outing," said Johnson, who didn't shy away from reporters after the game. "I had plenty of opportunities to get the game over with and didn't execute, and I paid for it. It was the worst location I could have thrown it. I didn't get it in, I didn't get it down. It stayed pretty much in the middle, and he did what he's supposed to do."
A somber Dave Trembley said after the game that he had no regrets about his decision to use Johnson, who had given up only two runs in his past 10 appearances.
"We certainly were in position to win the game and had the guys in the right spots," the Orioles manager said. "I don't think any other alternative existed. There was no other alternative that existed. There's no gray area. There's no shoulda-coulda-woulda. I don't know what anybody would say what you could do differently. The home run ball has been absolutely devastating against us. And once again, it was tonight."
The way the game slipped away might have been devastating, but there were plenty of encouraging signs before the ninth inning.
Rookie right-hander David Hernandez did all the things Trembley hoped he would not do against the Indians, falling behind hitters, putting runners on base and throwing a ton of pitches. But he showed a lot of guts by refusing to let the game slip away. The 24-year-old hung in there for six innings, dodging virtually every lightning bolt the Indians fired his way.
"It was definitely a day when I had to battle," said Hernandez, who gave up two earned runs, walked three and struck out four on 102 pitches. "After the three innings, I definitely didnt think I was going to get through six. But I made some key pitches here and there. I really haven't had my fastball the last few starts, but I was able to go to my slider to get ahead and keep the batters off balance."
The Orioles' hitters put Hernandez in position to win, thanks to some timely hits by Mora, who went 3-for-4 with a second-inning home run, and Wieters, who hit a majestic seventh-inning home run to give the Orioles a 4-2 lead.
But the Orioles' bullpen wasn't quite as adept at dodging lightning bolts as Hernandez. Although Chris Ray did throw a scoreless inning in the seventh, Danys Baez allowed Cleveland to pull within a run in the eighth by giving up an RBI double to Shin-Soo Choo.
Choo tormented the Orioles all night, going 3-for-4 with two doubles.
The Orioles, who were 44-2 this year when leading after eight innings entering Thursday night, showed some fight in the ninth after Marte gave Cleveland the lead. Felix Pie and Nolan Reimold both reached base on infield singles off Kerry Wood with two outs, but Nick Markakis struck out on a checked swing to end the game.
"We did everything we could do," Mora said. "We had Nick, our best hitter, up at the plate. That's a pretty good matchup. But Kerry Wood makes a pretty good pitch to end the game. It's disappointing because we were one pitch away."
Mora repeatedly did his part to keep the Orioles in the game. They fell behind 1-0 on a home run by Grady Sizemore on the sixth pitch of the game, but when Cumberland native Aaron Laffey - who has pitched well for the Indians this year, with a 3.42 ERA entering the game - tried to sneak a knee-high slider past Mora in the second inning, the veteran third baseman belted it 364 feet, just over the left-field fence.
Wieters also excelled, getting the Orioles out of a jam in the sixth with a perfect throw to second to nail Choo trying to steal after Travis Hafner struck out. His seventh-inning home run, which came on a full count, was a thing of beauty, traveling 380 feet to the opposite field off Indians reliever Jess Todd. It was his fifth of the season, and there was never a doubt from the moment it left his bat.
There was some doubt about Marte's home run. It briefly looked as if Reimold might be able to snag it before it reached the seats in left field, but it went just far enough - 353 feet instead of 351 - to give the Indians the victory.