TORONTO -- Given their first real head-to-head opportunity to leave a mark on the American League's Eastern Division race, the Orioles laid an egg.
And it wasn't a little one. Rather, it was ostrich-sized.
Last night's 8-4 thumping by the Toronto Blue Jays goes into the books as only one loss, but it has possible serious ramifications. The Orioles had their hottest pitcher, Mike Mussina, in what seemed like a perfect position.
The Blue Jays were on a downslide, having lost five of seven on their just completed road trip to Boston and Detroit. Some of their key performers were slumping, others were injured and a definite sense of panic was as much in the air as the thunderstorms that clapped around SkyDome.
One game put at least a temporary halt to the dire prospects forecast for the Blue Jays. It assured the division leaders they cannot be dumped from first place during the next three days.
It also meant that the Orioles were left with a rookie-veteran matchup tonight (Alan Mills against Jack Morris) to return this four-game series to square one.
Despite their hitting slump while losing two of three to the Indians over the weekend, the Orioles went into last night's game on an optimistic note. A lot of things seemed to be in their favor.
There was, however, one overriding and perhaps overlooked factor working against them.
Mussina's mound opponent was Todd Stottlemyre, whose record is undistinguished against every team except one. You guessed it.
The right-hander is now 6-0 with a 1.49 earned run average against the Orioles. And, if last night is any example, he's showing no signs of surrendering his dominance any time soon.
"I don't know," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said when asked if he had any theories why Stottlemyre has been unbeatable. "The only thing is that his record says left-handers hit him a lot better than right-handers -- and we don't have a lot of left-handers to run out there."
Stottlemyre wasn't the only one to get well last night. Joe Carter was in an 0-for-13 and 2-for-21 funk before unloading a home run, double and single (in that order) to drive in two runs and score two more.
Ageless Dave Winfield had a double and home run for three RBI and Candy Maldonado also chipped in with a two-run homer as Mussina suffered through his worst start (of 34) in the major leagues.
"It didn't seem like he was in trouble, until . . . boom, he was in trouble," said Oates. "It wasn't like you had time to get anybody ready."
Not that it would have mattered. With Storm Davis and Todd Frohwirth coming off busy weekends, and the certain prospect of having to go to the bullpen tonight (when Mills will be limited to about 80 pitches), Oates didn't have a lot of alternatives.
"Against that lineup [five right-handed hitters, a left-hander and three switch-hitters] I'd just as soon use Mike as my left-handers," said Oates, who used Mike Flanagan to finish the game.
The fact that the Orioles, who had to scratch for their first two runs, never gave much indication of solving Stottlemyre made most strategy decisions academic.
For Stottlemyre, last night's game was a redemption of sorts. The last time he left a pitching mound, Wednesday afternoon in Boston, he had been doubly embarrassed.
Not only had he let a 3-0 lead rapidly disintegrate, but he also had been needlessly thrown out of the game because of a rule misinterpretation. His only salvation was that the Blue Jays came from behind to win the game.
After that, Stottlemyre was in bad need of a pick-me-up. Of all the starting pitchers with at least 100 innings, he had the highest ERA in the American League (5.13). His record was 6-7 and his team was in danger of losing its grip on the AL East lead.
Enter the Orioles. Just the tonic Stottlemyre needed. "I don't know how to explain it, other than every time I pitch against them I seem to have good stuff," said Stottlemyre.
The matchup couldn't have come at a better time for the Blue Jays. They had been hammered in three straight games by the Tigers -- and their starters had averaged less than five innings in the last eight games.
"Two things usually happen to a bullpen -- its either underworked or overworked," said Stottlemyre. "This time ours was overworked. I wasn't going out there to pitch seven innings, I was going out there to win.
"At least this time I didn't get thrown out," he said.
On the play in question, Stottlemyre thought he'd executed a force play at third base, when in fact the infield fly rule was in effect and the runner had to be tagged on the play. "It was very embarrassing," said Stottlemyre. "I felt like I wasn't doing my job."
He did his job last night, and admitted the first of a four-game series against the Orioles was more than just another starting assignment. "Yeah, I think maybe I was a little more pumped up than usual," said Stottlemyre, whose father, Mel, used to give the Orioles fits when he pitched for the Yankees.
"Whenever you're playing games in your own division -- whether you're chasing or being chased -- those are games you want to win," he said. But he claimed there was only normal, not additional, pressure.
"I put enough pressure on myself to do well," he said. "It's been a tough season for me so far. What I've got to do is put everything behind me and go out like it's a whole new season."
If Stottlemyre can maintain that outlook the rest of the year he would please manager Cito Gaston even more than himself. Gaston says Stottlemyre's inclination to come unglued has kept him from stepping up as a consistent winner.
"Some people get mad and they play better," Gaston said before last night's game. "Some get mad and they can't play.
"When I got mad, I played better," said the Blue Jays manager. "I think Todd loses it a little when he gets mad. He's got to get himself together one of these days. It [his temper] is not helpful to him."
Just as they had done the last time he pitched, the Blue Jays gave Stottlemyre a comfortable early lead. This time he didn't let it get away. And there were no signals from the umpires to misinterpret.
All he had to do was keep the Orioles' bats quiet. And he demonstrated, once again, that he knows how to do that.