The Minnesota Twins pushed them to the brink with a 4-3 extra-inning victory last night, but only because the Orioles didn't take offense to anything after the fifth inning.
Pinch hitter Randy Bush looped a two-out single off Gregg Olson in the 10th inning to drive home pinch runner Pedro Munoz and send manager John Oates to another one-run defeat. The Orioles have lost two games by a total of two runs to relinquish much of the momentum they had built during a big weekend in Boston. They are 1-5 in one-run games under Oates.
"Any time you lose, it's a tough way to lose, but you've got to keep these guys positive," Oates said. "You can get frustrated losing by one run, but you've got to keep charging.
This, however, has been through no fault of the bullpen, which has answered with a solid performance every time Oates has picked up the phone the past eight games. And at times he has picked it up pretty early.
Oates pulled starter Jeff Ballard after only four-plus innings, even though he had given up just three runs and the game was tied. Three relievers shut down the potent Twins for 5 2/3 innings before the game finally got away. Bush's single stopped a string of 26 1/3 scoreless innings by the bullpen.
Right-hander Mark Williamson replaced Ballard with a runner on and no one out in the fifth inning and pitched three innings of two-hit relief. Left-hander Mike Flanagan came on with a runner on and none out in the eighth and got out of trouble. He worked through the ninth before turning the game over to Olson.
The Orioles closer retired the first two batters he faced, but catcher Brian Harper singled and Kent Hrbek walked to bring Bush to the plate to bat for outfielder Shane Mack. Bush lifted the ball just over the head of second baseman Juan Bell to bring Munoz home from second and hand Olson his second loss of the season.
Olson was angered that plate umpire Dale Ford didn't call strikes on some close pitches he threw to Hrbek on curveballs, and Oates didn't like the calls, either.
"If he [Ford] tells me those balls are outside or inside, I can't argue, but if he tells me those curveballs were too high to Hrbek, he's just wrong.
"I can't see the width of the plate from my vantage point. But I can see the height."
Orioles catcher Bob Melvin also questioned the calls.
"I don't know what a ball or strike is anymore," Melvin said. "I'm numb. I can't tell you if they were balls or strikes, because I don't know where the strike zone is anymore."
The Baltimore offense was held scoreless from the sixth inning on, even though the Orioles had runners in scoring position three RTC times in the last five innings and had runners at first and second with none out in the 10th.
Ballard had pitched well in each of his previous three games, giving up four runs over 16 1/3 innings (including a relief appearance), but he was pitching in trouble from the outset last night.
Kirby Puckett put the Twins on top in the first inning with a bases-empty home run, and Ballard gave up two more runs to erase an Orioles lead an inning later.
In each case, he got the first two outs of the inning without allowing a runner. Scott Leius kept the Twins alive in the second with a looping single to right and scored on a long triple by Greg Gagne. The Twins regained the lead when Dan Gladden got Minnesota's third straight two-out hit.
Oates was saying just before game time that Ballard is at a disadvantage on artificial turf, because when he gets a ground ball it has a better chance of squirting through the infield. But that wasn't the problem in the early innings.
The Twins were hitting almost everything in the air. In addition to Puckett's home run, which cleared the 30-foot sheet of tarpaulin that serves as a right-field fence, Mack sent right fielder Dwight Evans to the warning track to pull down his second-inning fly ball, and Gagne hit the fence on the fly with his RBI triple. Each of the first seven Minnesota hits went over the infield, not through it.
The Orioles used the turf to their advantage against Twins starter Mark Guthrie. Joe Orsulak scraped a single through the left side with two out in the top of the second, and Bob Melvin walked to load the bases before Bill Ripken drove a single up the middle for two runs.
The Orioles added a run in the fifth when Mike Devereaux lined a leadoff single to right-center and Cal Ripken pulled a ground ball down the left-field line for an RBI double.
It was Ripken's second hit of the game, and it gave him his 38th RBI of the season, one fewer than American League leader Dave Henderson had going into last night's game.
That got Ballard even, but he wasn't around long enough to go for his fourth victory. He got a quick hook after Gladden opened the Minnesota fifth with a single to left.
Ballard had thrown just 69 pitches, but he allowed nine runners. He complained earlier this year when former manager Frank Robinson took him out of a game in which he had surrendered only three runs, but he knew going in that Oates is not afraid to go to his bullpen early. Teammate Bob Milacki was removed from a game in Boston after giving up only one hit in 5 2/3 innings.
"Every pitcher is going to be different," Oates said before the game. "Jeff is the kind of guy who is going to have a lot of base runners. He's a high hits-to-innings-type pitcher. Jeff Robinson is the same way, but I'll go with him a little longer because he can strike a guy out.
"Jeff Ballard is not a strikeout pitcher. If he has runners at first and third with one out, there's a pretty good chance he'll give up a run, though he is good at getting the double-play ball."
Oates' handling of the pitching staff has been hard to second-guess. The bullpen entered last night's game with a string of 20 2/3 scoreless innings, and Williamson quickly added an inning to that streak by getting out of the fifth.
The Orioles blew an opportunity to take the lead in the sixth. Chris Hoiles doubled off the right-field fence to lead off the inning and went to third on a ground out, but Melvin bounced to Gagne at short with the infield in, and Bell grounded out to end the inning.
Bell had entered the game as a pinch hitter in the fourth after Bill Ripken left the game with renewed stiffness in his lower back.
+!Site: The Metrodome, Minneapolis
Orioles starter: Jose Mesa (4-5, 4.06)
Twins starter: Kevin Tapani (2-6, 3.93)
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)