There's a theory in baseball (if it wasn't written by Earl Weaver, he certainly was a believer) that if you play for one run that's usually all you get.
John Oates played that theory for double its value last night and got what he wanted, temporarily at least. He played for two runs in order to get close to the Oakland A's, but that was all he got.
The end result was a 5-3 loss, the third in a row for the Orioles, matching their longest losing streak of the young season. They managed to remain in first place by a half-game because Toronto lost for the fifth straight time.
The subject for debate in last night's game came in the fifth inning, with Oakland leading 3-0. A's starter Joe Slusarski (3-4) walked Randy Milligan and Joe Orsulak, bringing Leo Gomez to the plate with nobody out.
At that point the Orioles had 15 outs remaining in the game (12 if you consider the last three automatic with Dennis Eckersley on the mound). It was up to Oates to decide whether to try to ensure getting something on the scoreboard -- or reach for the jugular.
He was undoubtedly influenced by the Orioles' lack of success against Slusarski (a .152 team average in two games last year and two hits in the first four innings last night). Gomez executed a less than artistic sacrifice bunt -- and the Orioles eventually got their two runs on a checked-swing grounder by Brady Anderson and Mark McLemore's two-out double.
Playing to get close in the fifth inning isn't exactly textbook style baseball. But Oates, like Weaver, his onetime manager, is not a captive of the "book" -- though they may defy different chapters.
"I have no problem whatsoever bunting in that situation," said Oates. "We hadn't hit him [Slusarski] and we still had four innings to play.
"I wanted two runs there -- get some momentum going. We had our No. 9 hitter up there, and I didn't want to take the chance of a double play taking us out of the inning. With men on first and second and nobody out, I felt we couldn't afford to come away with nothing," said Oates.
"We had 1-2-3-4 [hitters in the lineup] coming up. I wasn't playing for two runs -- I wanted to get something. If we get a base hit, we get the tying run on base. If it's the eighth or ninth inning, no, I don't bunt there.
"But in that situation, I felt it was the right thing to do," said Oates. "I think it was a pretty good play -- we got two runs."
The big gamble in playing to get close to the A's is operating on the theory you can keep them in check the rest of the way. The huge shadow of Eckersley and his 50-cent earned run average (0.50 before he pitched a scoreless ninth last night) tends to shorten every game against the A's -- a fact Oates readily admits.
Gomez, who had an eight-game hitting streak stopped (0-for-1), bounced to reliever Jeff Parrett to end the next inning with the same two runners on base, both again courtesy of walks. Oates passed up that opportunity, and another in the ninth when McLemore grounded out to end the game, to take a shot with Sam Horn as a pinch hitter.
In the sixth inning, Oates said "we still had a couple of innings to play [score still 3-2]." After Jose Canseco and Glenn Davis traded home runs, Gregg Olson escaped an ugly ninth with one run allowed, and Eckersley made his expected appearance.
After Orsulak lined to right, pinch hitter Chito Martinez singled and third baseman Carney Lansford made a diving stop of Anderson's hard smash to get a force at second.
In what could be interpreted as an indication that his at-bats are in the process of being severely reduced, Horn remained on the bench as McLemore made the final out.
"The way Sam's swinging right now, I figured we had a better chance getting Mac on base and getting Junior [Cal Ripken] to the plate," said Oates.
Though he went hitless in three at-bats, Ripken hit a couple of rockets, one in the first inning that didn't clear the left-centerfield fence only because it didn't get high enough. The American League's perennial All-Star shortstop came into the game with a slight, but obvious, adjustment in stance, recapturing the crouch he used during his monster season last year.
And Davis, who is scheduled to play first base tonight for the first time since Opening Day and appears ready to play on a regular basis, unloaded a howitzer shot off Goose Gossage in the eighth inning for his first home run of the year.
"You could see it coming," Oates said of the Davis blast. "He's had good bat speed and been getting good swings.