TORONTO -- The Orioles came to Canada hellbent for horsehide, but they found out again last night that it isn't easy to keep a dream alive at SkyDome.
The Toronto Blue Jays may have struggled over the weekend, but they had no trouble dispatching Mike Mussina and the Orioles, 8-4, in the opener of a four-game series that could have a significant bearing on the outcome of the American League East race.
It was only one game, but it was another frightening evening in the house that has haunted the Orioles since it opened during their last real run at the division title in 1989. Thunder cracked loudly outside, but it was drowned out by the crack of the bats that sent Mussina to the worst loss of his major-league career.
Mussina worked 6 1/3 innings and gave up eight runs, the most he has surrendered in a big-league game. He gave up home runs to Joe Carter, Candy Maldonado and Dave Winfield, who were quick to remind the upstart Orioles why the Blue Jays have been setting the pace in the AL East for most of the season.
Carter made the biggest statement, with three hits and two RBI. Winfield had an RBI double to go with his 425th career home run. Maldonado, who all but begged the Orioles to sign him a few years ago, delivered what would turn out to be the decisive blow with a third-inning homer that gave Toronto a 5-2 lead.
"It's been a long time since I've been roughed up that badly," Mussina said, "probably back to college. We get a run in the first and I give up two. We get one in the third and I give up three. I didn't even give us a chance. That's what bothers me the most."
The pitching matchup didn't exactly run to form. Mussina has been the most effective pitcher in the Orioles' starting rotation. His 2.44 ERA coming in was the fourth-best in the league. Blue Jays starter Todd Stottlemyre has been one of the least effective starters. His 5.13 ERA coming in was the highest among AL starters with 100 or more innings.
But Stottlemyre (7-7) pitched seven strong innings, recovering from a rocky start to give up two runs on five hits and run his career record against the Orioles to 6-0. Duane Ward and Tom Henke added an inning apiece as the Blue Jays increased their division lead to three games and put the Orioles very much on the defensive.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we can play with these guys," manager Johnny Oates said. "They've got a good ballclub, but they have their holes just like we do. They hit a good pitcher tonight and they hit him pretty hard, but I would hope tonight's game would have no effect on tomorrow night's game. We start over 0-0 tomorrow."
The Orioles will start over, but they will send inexperienced Alan Mills to the mound against battle-hardened veteran Jack Morris, one of baseball's best big-game pitchers. The prospect of going down two games in the four-game set cannot be very appetizing to a team that had hoped to build some confidence for the stretch drive.
"We certainly don't want to leave here any worse off than we came," Oates said. "If we come back and win tomorrow, we'll be right back where we started from. That will be our goal. I hope this game wasn't very important."
The big question going into the series was this: Who was going to feel the most heat? The Blue Jays were back home, where they swept the Orioles in April, but they had just lost three straight to the Detroit Tigers to allow the Orioles to pull to within two games of first place.
The Orioles had just rebounded from back-to-back losses to score an extra-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians and to creep that close.
"I would hope there is more pressure on them," Oates said before the game, "but I don't want our guys to say, 'Hey, we weren't supposed to be here so we don't have anything to lose.' I hope all the pressure is on them because they're the ones who were supposed to clinch this thing by Labor Day. We need to win some games here and put as much pressure on them as we can."
The Blue Jays were prohibitive preseason favorites to win the AL East, a distinction that comes with its own weight. The club had abandoned financial restraints to sign Morris and Winfield, and the pressure to win it all grew when third baseman Kelly Gruber told a reporter this spring that the club should take the division by 15 games.
Enter the surprising Orioles, who have stayed close long enough xTC to make this a very important series. Neither team wasted any time making it an exciting one.
Stottlemyre got in trouble right away. He gave up back-to-back singles to Mike Devereaux and Cal Ripken with one out in the first inning and surrendered the first run of the game when a looper by Randy Milligan popped out of the glove of a diving Carter in shallow right.
Ripken scored, but Glenn Davis -- who had reached on a force play -- was called out at third by umpire Rick Reed on a hotly disputed play to end the inning.
Reed originally called Davis safe on a close play, then changed the call when Davis' foot came off the bag momentarily. Both Davis and third-base coach Cal Ripken Sr. argued vehemently and the video replay appeared to back them up. Davis did lift his foot off the bag, but Gruber did not appear to be holding the tag on him at the time.
"He said that Glenn's foot never got to the bag," Oates said.
The call was costly. The Orioles were taken out of a two-on, two-out situation with hot-hitting Joe Orsulak coming to the plate, and the Blue Jays responded with two runs in the bottom of the inning to take the lead.
Mussina (11-5) gave up an infield single and battled Carter to a full count before the Blue Jays right fielder drove a breaking ball ,, over the 400-foot marker in center for his 24th home run of the year.
It wasn't a terrible pitch, but the law of averages may have caught up with Mussina. Carter had gone hitless in 13 at-bats during the Blue Jays' three losses in Detroit and left 12 runners on base. He followed it up with a double to kick off Toronto's three-run third inning and scored on a double by Winfield.
Mussina, who was coming off a five-hit shutout over the Tigers on Wednesday, did not have much luck with the heart of the Blue Jays' lineup. Maldonado came up later in the third inning and lined a ball over the 375 marker in left to give Stottlemyre a three-run cushion.
"I've got to believe I was due," Mussina said, "not that I wanted to admit it. I want to be consistent. That's my job. Today, I wasn't consistent at all."