KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was another one of those strange evenings for Gregg Olson.
Olson is one of the best relief stoppers in baseball, but once in awhile he lets a game gets away. Because of the nature of his role, they are always tough losses, and last night's was no exception.
The Kansas City Royals rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to score a 5-4 victory and deprive right-hander Mike Mussina of his 12th victory of the year.
They also would deprive the Orioles of a chance to pick up some uncontested ground in the American League East after the first-place Toronto Blue Jays were rained out in Cleveland. Instead, the loss widened the gap to 2 1/2 games.
Olson, who came on to protect a one-run lead, gave up a leadoff single to Curtis Wilkerson, then complicated the situation with a walk to No. 9 hitter David Howard. Gary Thurman bunted into a force at third, failing to advance the runners, but Wally Joyner sliced an opposite-field single to right to bring home the tying run, and Thurman ended up at third on the throw to the plate.
Enter 19-year veteran George Brett, who hit a long fly ball to left that scored Thurman easily. One minute, the Orioles were looking ahead to the possibility of a three-game sweep. The next, they were settling for a split of the first two games of the series.
Why pitch to Brett with the score tied and a base empty? Manager Johnny Oates had his reasons.
"There are about four of them," Oates said. "Gregg has had a lot of success against Joyner and Brett and he hasn't had much success against [No. 4 hitter] Mike Macfarlane. The year-plus that I've been manager, we don't give that walk when Gregg is in there. We like to give him the base to work with. By and large, it has worked."
The blown save was Olson's sixth in his past 15 attempts after he converted 19 of his first 20 save opportunities this year.
His frustration was evident. What is not so apparent is what can be done to get him back on a roll like the one he carried the first two months this season. Olson declined to comment afterward. Oates didn't have much to add, either.
"I don't have an answer," Oates said. "That's one job I wouldn't want, because he never gets to pitch with a comfortable lead. The game is always on the line. But the bottom line is this: Gregg Olson didn't lose that game; the Baltimore Orioles lost that game. We had opportunities to get a lot more runs."
The loss compounded an already unsettling evening. Right fielder Joe Orsulak was taken to a nearby hospital for X-rays after he jammed his left thumb trying to make a diving catch in the fifth inning. Results were negative, but the club figures to be without one of its hottest hitters for at least the next few days.
If there was a bright side, it was the performance of Mussina, who bounced back from an eight-run shelling in Toronto to pitch 7 2/3 innings and give up three runs on nine hits. He eventually would see the decision get away -- the fourth time this year the bullpen has cost him a victory -- but he would require some late-inning offensive support to make it even a possibility.
The Orioles scored three runs in the seventh to overcome a 3-1 deficit and spoil a solid performance by Royals starter Luis Aquino, only to watch right-hander Rusty Meacham (6-3) sneak away with the victory.
"I had a couple of bad innings," Mussina said. "They got a couple of runs, but we came back. Give us credit. It got away from us, but that's going to happen once in awhile."
Aquino had given up just a run on three hits through five innings, but he surrendered a leadoff single to Cal Ripken and walked Glenn Davis to put a two-run lead in jeopardy. The Orioles eventually scored a run on a fielder's choice, then added two more on three consecutive two-out singles.
Once again, it was the bottom of the order that delivered the clutchRBI. No. 8 hitter Bill Ripken pulled a sharp single to left to score Orsulak with the tying run and No. 9 hitter Jeff Tackett brought home Leo Gomez to put the Orioles on top. The club now has 119 RBI from the bottom two spots in the order.
There was a time when four runs would have been considered overkill with Mussina on the mound, but not lately. He is -- statistically -- the best starter in the rotation, but his consistency has faltered in the past few weeks. To illustrate, he pitched a five-hit shutout against the Detroit Tigers on Aug. 5 and came back in his next start to give up eight runs in Monday night's 8-4 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays at SkyDome.
That was, by his own account, the worst beating he has taken since he was a collegian, so there was room to wonder how he would rebound against the Royals.
He was far from overpowering. He gave up two hits and a walk in the first inning and got out of it with no runs. He had runners on base in each of the first six innings. But he didn't surrender a run until Macfarlane led off the fourth with a line drive into the left-field seats.
It was Macfarlane's 10th home run of the year and it pulled the Royals even after the Orioles scored a first-inning run off Aquino. More importantly, it was another indication that all is not right with Mussina. The home run was the fourth he had given up in a span of 9 1/3 innings after giving up just 10 in his first 155 innings.
Mussina retired the next five batters in order, but the Royals struck quickly with two out in the fifth to take a two-run lead. Leadoff hitter Gary Thurman drew a walk and Wally Joyner pulled a line drive to right-center that landed just out of the reach of a diving Orsulak. By the time Mike Devereaux retrieved the ball, Thurman had scored the go-ahead run and Joyner was standing at third.
The Royals weren't through. George Brett followed with a single hit to right to bring home another run.
That was hit No. 2.952 for Brett, who ranks 21st on baseball's alltime hit list. The next rung on the ladder is 10 hits away, where Willie Keeler stands in 20th place with 2,962. Brett is 48 hits from the 3,000 with 46 games left of his 19th major-league season.
Orioles first: Anderson walked. Devereaux singled to center, Anderson to third. C.Ripken grounded into fielder's choice, shortstop Howard to second baseman Samuel, Anderson scored, Devereaux forced at second. G.Davis walked, C.Ripken to second. Milligan grounded into double play, second baseman Samuel to shortstop Howard to first baseman Joyner, G.Davis out. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 1, Royals 0.
Royals fourth: Macfarlane homered to left on 2-0 count. Samuel struck out. Koslofski struck out. Conine flied out to center fielder Devereaux. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Royals 1, Orioles 1.
Royals fifth: Wilkerson grounded out to shortstop C.Ripken. Howard flied out to left fielder Anderson. Thurman singled to right. Joyner tripled to right center, Thurman scored. Brett singled to right center, Joyner scored. Macfarlane struck out. 2 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Royals 3, Orioles 1.
Orioles sixth: C.Ripken singled to right center. G.Davis walked, C.Ripken to second. Milligan grounded into fielder's choice, right fielder Thurman to second baseman Samuel, C.Ripken to third, G.Davis forced at second. Magnante relieved Aquino. Orsulak grounded into fielder's choice, second baseman Samuel to shortstop Howard, C.Ripken scored, Milligan forced at second. Meacham relieved Magnante. Gomez singled to second, Orsulak second. B.Ripken singled to left, Orsulak scored, Gomez to second. Tackett singled to left, Gomez scored, B.Ripken to second, and out advancing, left fielder Conine to third baseman Wilkerson to shortstop Howard to second baseman Samuel to shortstop Howard. 3 runs, 4 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 4, Royals 3.
Royals ninth: Olson pitching. Segui to first base. Wilkerson singled past first. Howard walked, Wilkerson to second. Thurman bunted into fielder's choice, pitcher Olson to third baseman Gomez, Wilkerson out, Howard to second. Joyner singled to left, Howard scored, Thurman to second, and on throw home, Thurman to third. Brett hit sacrifice fly to left fielder Anderson, Thurman scored. 2 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Royals 5, Orioles 4.