CLEVELAND -- The evening got ugly in a hurry. One minute, the Orioles were locked in a one-run game with the Cleveland Indians. The next, they were stumbling around Cleveland Stadium as if they were the Cleveland Indians.
The result was a four-run seventh inning that would make the difference in a 7-5 defeat that cost the Orioles a chance to move back into first place in the American League East.
Left-hander Mike Flanagan, whose eight-run inning Saturday in Detroit was one of the low points of the season, made a throwing error that would contribute to three runs. One scored when he picked up a squeeze bunt by Thomas Howard and couldn't get the ball out of his glove. Another scored when he threw the ball down the right-field line for an error. The third was scored by Howard, who streaked to third on the error and scored on a ground ball single through the drawn-up Orioles infield.
Starting pitcher Ben McDonald had some tough moments on the way to his second loss in a row, but they were nothing compared with the strange bullpen blowup that broke open the game. The Orioles would climb back with a three-run eighth, but they could not overcome another nightmare in middle relief.
The error was only the third by Flanagan in his past 267 games, dating back to the 1983 season, but it was the flash point for the Orioles' third loss in their past four games. In each case, the middle relievers were right in the middle of things. In this case, Flanagan and submariner Todd Frohwirth did not allow a solid hit, but that did not keep them from feeling the heat.
"We haven't been able to pick each other up like we used to," said Frohwirth, who picked up for Flanagan and immediately gave up an RBI single. "It used to be, when one of us had a bad night, somebody else would come in and shut the door."
The Orioles pulled back to within two runs on a pinch homer by Glenn Davis and had the tying runs on base with none out in the ninth, but failed to do the right thing when it counted. Mark McLemore could not get a bunt down. Brady Anderson popped out. Mike Devereaux ended the game with a nubber to the mound. Not a pretty finish.
But manager Johnny Oates was preaching calm afterward. The club still can salvage a winning trip with a victory in today's series finale, when 8-1 Mike Mussina takes on Indians ace Charles Nagy in an afternoon game.
"You're not going to play picture-perfect baseball all year," Oates said. "It's good copy to make it sound bleak right now, but I'm going to be here tomorrow ready to play another ballgame. You just have to forget it and come out and play.
"I'm not going to panic. I don't care if we lose the next five games, I'm not going to panic. We've just got to give it our very best to win every ballgame."
McDonald (7-4) was coming off two unsuccessful starts, which left him open to analysis despite his respectable won-lost record. He has been a fairly consistent winner this year, but his performance during the past month has been uneven.
He gave up five runs on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings last night, but both he and Oates said this performance was a step in the right direction.
"I hate to say it, but I'm pretty pleased with the way I pitched and the pitches I threw for strikes," McDonald said. "I been throwing a new pitch -- a slider -- and things are coming. It was just one of those nights when things fell in for them and didn't fall in for us."
He was effective in the early innings, giving up two singles through the first three innings, but he gave up a game-tying home run to Albert Belle with one out in the bottom of the fourth.
McDonald has been working with pitching coach Dick Bosman on keeping the ball down in the strike zone, but he apparently left one up for Belle, who is the one hitter in the Indians lineup who can consistently make pitchers pay heavily for their mistakes. The home run was his 14th of the season.
"I just worked the other day on getting the ball down," McDonald said. "That's where I've been getting hurt. You're going to get hurt when you get the ball up, especially when you're down 3-1 or 2-0 on the count. Every time you do that, you're in danger of giving up a home run."
The Orioles had taken the lead in the top of that inning when Sam Horn led off with a home run to center field. They would reassume the lead in the top of the fifth on another leadoff home run, this time the 14th of the year by catcher Chris Hoiles.
The home run by Horn was his fourth of the year and his first since May 30. He had 14 by the All-Star break last year, but has played sparingly since first baseman Glenn Davis moved into the designated-hitter role.
Indians starter Jack Armstrong came into the game with a 1-7 record and a 4.73 ERA. He has averaged one home run every six innings of work, but picked the right times to make the wrong pitches last night. The Orioles had runners on base all evening, but not when their big hitters swung for the fences.
McDonald ran into trouble again in the bottom of the fifth inning. Shortstop Mark Lewis led off with a looping single to left and scored on a one-out triple by speedy outfielder Kenny Lofton. The Indians took the lead when Howard laid down a near-perfect squeeze bunt. He would spark the Orioles' seventh- inning breakdown with his second squeeze play of the game.
Armstrong seemed to get stronger as the game progressed. He retired nine of the next 10 batters after Hoiles' home run and worked through the seventh inning for the first time this year.
He finally gave way to Derek Lilliquist after Devereaux tripled and CalRipken singled with one out in the eighth, but Lilliquist gave up a two-run homer to Davis to allow the Orioles back into the game.