CHICAGO -- The skeptics were ready and waiting. Sure, the Orioles are off to one of their best starts. Sure, they can beat up on the worst teams in the American League. But the question -- posed more than a few times over the past few weeks -- was this:
What happens when they start playing quality competition?
The Chicago White Sox would have to fall into that category, and they also have fallen under the spell. The Orioles knocked them out of first place in the American League West last night with a 7-2 victory at Comiskey Park and moved into undisputed possession of first place in the AL East in the process.
It may be too early to draw any sweeping conclusions, but the Orioles are on the verge of sweeping the team that was favored to win what may be the toughest division in baseball. Unbeaten Ben McDonald has a chance to make it a perfect road trip when he takes the mound against left-hander Greg Hibbard in the series finale today.
Right-hander Bob Milacki threw a strong eight innings to take advantage of his club's 14-hit performance and improve his record to 3-2. He gave up seven hits and worked out of a couple of big jams, as the Orioles won their fourth in a row and knocked seven-game winner Jack McDowell off his unbeaten start. Mike Flanagan worked a perfect ninth.
The club actually moved into first place the night before, passing the Toronto Blue Jays by percentage points even though they remained a half-game behind in the win-loss columns. That statistical oddity resulted because the Blue Jays had played three more games, but the Orioles took advantage of a Toronto loss yesterday to move a half-game up.
The White Sox brought out their best pitcher, but even that was not good enough to derail a team that has won 10 of its past 13 road games, including the past six.
The aura of invincibility that had surrounded McDowell through his first seven games was punctured in the first inning, when the Orioles scored three times on an RBI double by Sam Horn and a two-run home run by Chris Hoiles.
McDowell had entered the game with victories in his first seven starts, including an overpowering performance against the Orioles last Sunday in which he gave up four hits over eight innings at Camden Yards.
He hasn't needed to be overpowering very often, not with the White Sox averaging close to eight runs a game for him, but he was particularly under-whelming during the early innings last night. He gave up a run on three more hits in the second inning and had surrendered five runs on eight hits before he got the first out of the third.
Hoiles moved into a tie for third in the league with his eighth home run of the season and also earned a share of the major-league lead among catchers, joining former teammate Mickey Tettleton. Hoiles almost moved up another rung in his next at-bat with a towering shot to center, but the ball landed on the warning track and he had to settle for his first career triple.
It has been a dream season so far for the Orioles' new everyday catcher, who also ranks among the league leaders in hitting, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
McDowell didn't answer the bell in the fourth. He gave way to Wilson Alvarez and could only hope that his club would get him off the hook with another strong offensive performance. In his three innings, only one Orioles batter -- right fielder Chito Martinez -- failed to reach base.
The White Sox had bounced back with a run in the bottom of the first, but Tim Hulett padded the early lead with a run-scoring double in the second and Joe Orsulak tacked on another run with an RBI single in the third.
The Orioles were not any more accommodating to Alvarez, who gave up two runs on an RBI pinch single by Glenn Davis and a sacrifice fly by Orsulak in the fourth. The RBI by Davis was his first of the year. Brady Anderson contributed a double to that rally, setting a career high with 18 extra-base hits this season.
Milacki finally got a chance to work with a little breathing room. He has been struggling with his control for weeks, but the big lead allowed him to resist the temptation to be too fine. He struggled in the first inning, giving up a run on a bunt single by Tim Raines and an RBI single by Robin Ventura, but retired 13 of the next 15 batters he faced while the Orioles were building the five-run advantage.
He apparently took the advice of manager Johnny Oates, who told him recently to "see how far they can hit it," but only Frank Thomas took full advantage. He drove a wind-aided shot to left in the third inning that landed in the final row of the bleacher section -- 466 feet from home plate. One White Sox official said it was the longest home run hit at the 13-month-old ballpark.
No matter. Milacki continued to throw strikes and worked his way through the formidable White Sox lineup without serious difficulty until the fifth, when he came back around to Thomas with two on and two out. But this time, he came out on top, getting the big first baseman on a routine grounder to short to end the inning.
The Orioles are beginning to wonder if Thomas bats in about four places in the White Sox batting order. He seems to some up in every crucial situation. He has been at the plate with the game on the line in the ninth inning three times in the first five games of the season series. In a season and some change, he has eight home runs and 21 RBI against Baltimore.