SEATTLE -- Among the short-term investment brokers who track sporting events as a hobby, this one had all the appearances of a sure thing.
In the parlance of the trade, they call it a "lock" -- and try to keep the flanks guarded against the inevitable reverse. When the combination gets fouled up, strange things occur.
Which is exactly what happened to the Orioles as they got their first West Coast trip of the year off on a sour note by losing two of three to the Seattle Mariners, yesterday by a 7-1 count.
Going into the game, the Orioles had to like their chances of getting a leg up on this three-city jaunt along the West Coast, where they haven't had a winning season since 1987. Instead, they find themselves in the position of having to regroup in California, where they play three games against Oakland this weekend, and three more against the Angels before returning home a week from tomorrow.
It's hard to believe but the Orioles actually have picked up ground on the Blue Jays during their 3-7 run. Toronto lost its eighth game in 11 yesterday, 8-4 to Toronto, to remain four percentage points behind the Orioles in second place.
Still, judging by the matchup here yesterday, there was every reason to believe the Orioles would pad that lead and hit Oakland, the second stop on this junket, on a high note. Consider that the starting pitchers had a combined record of 7-8 -- and the Orioles' Ben McDonald had all but one of the wins and only one of the losses.
In addition the Orioles (now 27-18) went into the game with the best record in baseball while the Mariners (19-27) were reeling with an overworked and ineffective bullpen that had been taxed the night before when Randy Johnson inexplicably took himself out of the game.
The numbers were staggering in favor of the Orioles. Thus set up, they were given a stunning explanation of the inner workings of the infamous "reverse lock."
Erik Hanson (2-7) played the role of dominating pitcher, and McDonald (6-2) followed one dazzling inning with his most mysterious performance of the young season.
The resulting 7-1 loss was as puzzling to Orioles manager John Oates, pitching coach Dick Bosman and McDonald as it was to anybody who witnessed the game.
"When I came in here, I was wondering what I was going to tell you [the media] when you asked what was wrong with Ben," Oates said in the clubhouse.
What Oates was asked, instead, was how a pitcher could throw as good as it appeared McDonald was throwing, and get hit as hard as he did.
"That's the same question I asked Bos in the dugout," said Oates. "And he convinced me it wasn't because they knew what was coming."
It didn't take much to convince Oates. "You can't hit the ball that hard even if you know what's coming," he said. "The only thing I could see was that he could've had a little better location with his fastball. There are times when you want to throw it high, but he might have been up a little too much. But other than that, I didn't see anything wrong with him."
The performance was just as baffling to the players. "That's going to make for a funny-looking line in the box score," said Mike Flanagan, one of three relievers who finished the game. "Sometimes you just can't explain it."
McDonald finished with eight strikeouts in five innings, testimony to the overpowering stuff he was throwing. He walked only one batter and was ahead of the hitters most of the day.
Yet he gave up eight hits and seven runs -- and none of them were cheap.
"The one thing I found out," said McDonald, "was that the game turned around for me when I started to throw the changeup."
The problem was that by that time, the game had already turned away from McDonald.
"It's hard to get all three pitches established early," he said, "but it [the changeup] is a pitch I probably should've used a little more in the first couple of innings."
By striking out eight, McDonald seemingly refuted the theory that he was tipping his pitches, but the subject did get a lot of post-game consideration.
"It's the first thing you think about when you have good stuff and get hit hard," said McDonald. "But I just pitched a complete-game five-hitter against them 10 days ago, so if they got my pitches they must've gotten them a few minutes ago. They were hitting only .127 against me as a team, I've had a lot of success against them, so I think it was just one of those things."
Bosman and Oates tended to agree, chalking McDonald's effort off as one of those unexplainable games. "It is more frustrating when you go out there with good stuff and get hit hard," said Bosman. "When that happens the mental part of you has to be able to make an adjustment."
But adjustments couldn't come fast enough for McDonald yesterday.He gave up two runs on three hits in the second inning, a two-run homer to Ken Griffey Jr. in the third and a three-run shot by Edgar Martinez, who had doubled his previous at-bat, in the fourth.
The 6-foot-7 righthander was behind by the equivalent of a touchdown before the Orioles had their second hit off Hanson. By that time it was too late to regroup.
"That was the most consistent I've been all year with my curveball," said McDonald. "I had real good command of it and it had a good break. I guess it was just one of those days."