MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Brewers were gunning for the Orioles this week. They had climbed through the ranks of the American League East to stand just a handful of victories away from a legitimate place among the division front-runners.
Today, they stand on the brink of a disheartening three-game sweep, needing to salvage this afternoon's series finale to bridge the credibility gap that developed when they could not defeat either of the Orioles slumping starters.
Right-hander Bob Milacki did not get credit for last night's 8-4 victory at Milwaukee County Stadium, but he pitched well enough to keep the Brewers at bay for 5 2/3 innings and set up reliever Alan Mills for his fifth victory in six decisions.
The Brewers had come up empty against struggling Jose Mesa the night before, so they'll have to get by the winningest pitcher on the club -- veteran Rick Sutcliffe -- to get off the hook today.
"The best thing about it is, they both threw the ball well," manager Johnny Oates said. "Bobby had a rough time in the first inning, but he settled down and threw some good pitches. They both gave us a chance to win. They didn't pitch three-hit shutouts, but they gave us a chance if we go out and score a few runs."
Milacki apparently has done that a lot this year. He is 5-4 with an inflated 5.47 ERA, but the club has won 10 of the 15 games he has started. He gave up four runs on six hits and three walks, but left with a lead in the sixth.
Mills had come on in relief to give up a game-tying RBI single in the sixth, but he waited out the 4-4 deadlock until the Orioles rallied for four runs in the ninth off Milwaukee set-up man Darren Holmes.
Leo Gomez broke the tie with his second run-scoring hit of the game. Mark McLemore and Jeff Tackett padded the lead with RBI singles, and Mike Devereaux topped off the inning with a sacrifice fly for his third RBI of the game as the Orioles kept pace a half-game behind the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.
Holmes didn't figure to be so accommodating. He had been the surprise pitcher of the Brewers staff, giving up just one earned run in his first 12 appearances of the year. But he allowed all five batters he faced in the ninth inning to reach base.
The Orioles, who appeared ready to fall on hard times after losing catcher Chris Hoiles to a wrist fracture Sunday, have instead mounted a modest three-game winning streak.
"This is a very important series for us," said Devereaux, who homered and singled home a run before contributing to the ninth-inning rally. "We had split with New York and they [the Brewers] were only 2 1/2 games behind us when we got here. It definitely was important to come in here and win some games."
There was every reason to believe that the Orioles would meet some stiff resistance. The Brewers had won seven of nine games coming into the series and the first two pitchers in the series rotation were a combined 13-1 lifetime against Baltimore.
But apparently, past performance can only take you so far. On Tuesday night, starter Jaime Navarro smudged his 6-0 career record against the Orioles in a lopsided defeat, and Bill Wegman's 7-1 mark did not keep him out of the line of fire last night.
"I knew that Jaime had done well against us, but I had no idea about the guy who went tonight," Devereaux said. "The way I see it, when you come up against a guy who's 6-0 or 7-1, the law of averages says that you've got to get him sometime."
Devereaux was the first to bring the law of averages to bear against Wegman, wrapping a one-out line drive around the left field foul pole in the first inning for his 11th home run of the season. The Orioles went on to score a second run in the first when Cal Ripken singled, Sam Horn walked and Brewers third baseman Kevin Seitzer allowed a sharp bouncer by Randy Milligan to skip by him for an error.
The single extended Ripken's hitting streak to 12 games and kept him on a month-long roll that has raised his batting average nearly 70 points. He had homered twice in the series opener to increase his career total to 269 and pass Brooks Robinson for the all-time club lead among right-handed hitters.
Horn reached base in each of his first four trips to the plate, but he continues to work on his short game at a time when the club needs him to provide a little more punch.
He followed up the first-inning walk with a leadoff single in the third and scored on a two-out base hit by Gomez. Horn also doubled in the fifth inning and was safe on an infield single in the sixth on the way to his first three-hit performance of the year.
Where have all the home runs gone? Horn ranked among the major-league leaders in home run ratio last year. He came into last night's game with just four homers in 115 at-bats, but has a very respectable .282 batting average.
"I'm not playing as much, so when I go in there trying to hit home runs, my average and my home run production is going to go down," Horn said. "I'm working with [hitting coach] Greg Biagini to adjust to a new stance and approach.
"Right now, I'm just trying to hit the ball and be productive. If I have a few hits, I've got a better chance to stay in the lineup than if strike out three times. You can't hit a home run every day, but you can get a hit every day."
Milacki could not hold the early lead. The Brewers came right back in the bottom of the first inning to match the Orioles' two-run outburst. Darryl Hamilton opened with a triple and scored on a groundout. Paul Molitor singled and went to second on a wild pitch before coming around on Robin Yount's RBI single.
The Brewers came back from a run down in the fifth on a leadoff single by Franklin Stubbs and a sacrifice fly by Pat Listach, but Milacki stayed around even after handing out back-to-back walks with two outs in the same inning.
Milacki has struggled of late, but he resists the notion that he has been dragging down the rest of the staff. He still has a winning record (5-4) and the club has a very respectable winning percentage (.667) in the games that he has pitched.
12 and counting
A look at Cal Ripken's 12-game hitting streak, during which he has raised his batting average 42 points (his average was .250 before the streak started):
Date...... AB... R... H... RBI... BA
June 12... 4.... 0... 2... 0..... .254
June 13... 4.... 0... 1... 0..... .254
June 14... 4.... 1... 2... 1..... .259
June 15... 5.... 1... 2... 1..... .262
June 16... 4.... 1... 1... 1..... .261
June 17... 4.... 0... 3... 1..... .269
June 19... 5.... 1... 3... 1..... .276
June 20... 5.... 1... 2... 0..... .278
June 21... 4.... 1... 3... 0..... .286
June 22... 4.... 0... 2... 0..... .289
June 23... 4.... 3... 2... 4..... .292
June 24... 4.... 1... 1... 0..... .292
Totals.... 51... 10.. 24.. 9..... .471