All things considered, the Orioles will take the result, but they would rather have gone about last night's 5-4 win over the Yankees differently.
Mike Devereaux singled with the bases loaded to drive in the winning run and cap a wild ninth inning at Camden Yards. But it took an unusual set of circumstances before the Orioles could salvage a four-game split with the Yankees and avoid losing back-to-back series for the first time this year.
First, Gregg Olson, bidding for his 20th straight save and trying to secure Mike Mussina's ninth win, gave up a game-tying, two-run homer to Roberto Kelly. Then, the Orioles benefited from a broken play that resulted in the second stolen base of Leo Gomez's career and set up the winning run.
Kelly stunned Olson and a 12th straight sellout crowd of 45,156 by slamming a 2-0 fastball into the left-center-field seats off Olson in the top of the ninth. Mel Hall had opened the inning with a looping single to right off Mike Flanagan.
Olson (1-2) recovered fast enough to retire the next three hitters, but it wasn't difficult to sense a letdown.
"When they tied it, that's as low as I've been all year," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "The team really picked me up."
However, not exactly as he had it planned.
Reliever Tim Burke (0-1) walked Gomez to start the bottom of the ninth, setting into motion a weird chain of events that led to the final score. Mark McLemore, whose double had sparked a three-run fourth inning for the Orioles, took the first pitch for a ball. On Burke's next offering, Gomez took off for second base, McLemore took a low-and-away pitch for ball two and catcher Matt Nokes bounced a throw that shortstop Andy Stankiewicz couldn't handle.
Asked later whether the stolen base was a bold piece of strategy or a blown sign, Oates reacted with an incredulous look. "Do you think I'm that stupid?" he asked, with a winning smile on his face. "I like my job too much to try that."
After the first pitch, Oates had switched from a bunt to a hit-and-run play. McLemore got the sign, but took the pitch, which was well out of the strike zone. "I should've swung at it regardless," he said. "I just didn't."
Given the option of either bunting or trying to hit a ground ball to the right side on the next pitch, McLemore took no chances. He laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, moving Gomez to third base.
Pinch hitter Chito Martinez and Brady Anderson were walked intentionally to set up a possible double play. But Burke's first pitch to Devereaux was also a ball, and he lined the next one cleanly into right-center field to end the game.
"I was just looking for something I could hit to the outfield," said Devereaux, who earlier had made two outstanding catches in center field. "I was looking for something out over the plate."
The ninth-inning rally enabled the Orioles to salvage a desperately needed win. "We've been working so hard, struggling to get a win," said Oates. "It seems like we had 38 two weeks ago. No. 40 [the Orioles are 40-28] was a long time coming."
Except for home runs by Mike Gallego and Charlie Hayes, Mussina was effective for the eight innings he worked, but everyone in the park knew it would come down to Olson in the ninth inning. "I got the matchups I wanted -- Flanagan against Hall [who went 8-for-11 in the past three games], Olson against Kelly and Mattingly," said Oates.
The night before, he had passed up a chance to use Flanagan against Hall, and the result was a two-run homer off Ben McDonald that put the game out of reach. Olson was predictably grumpy about blowing the save opportunity, but this time he could at least be philosophical about it.
"If I get the next 19, it'll be OK -- I guess," said the right-hander. He hadn't blown a save try since his first one of the year, April 10 in Toronto -- and last night was the first time in eight games he had given up a hit, and the first time in 14 appearances that he had allowed a run.
While everything seemed to center around the ninth inning, the late dramatics were set up when the Orioles took an early, 4-0 lead. Anderson greeted Scott Kamieniecki with his 12th home run of the year to lead off the first inning, and the Orioles were opportunistic while scoring three in the fourth.
McLemore's double followed a walk to Joe Orsulak and a single by Gomez with one out. Jeff Tackett's sacrifice fly drove in the second run of the inning, with McLemore advancing to third, and eventually scoring on a wild pitch.
The home runs by Gallego, in the sixth inning, and Hayes, in the eighth, halved the Orioles lead, setting up the improbable finish.