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Last-strike rally sends Orioles home on up note, 4-3

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TORONTO -- The roof was open at SkyDome yesterday, so it could only come crashing down on the Toronto Blue Jays in the figurative sense. But that was enough to give the struggling Orioles a tremendous boost at a trying time.

Blue Jays closer Duane Ward had them down to their last strike before Harold Reynolds and rookie Damon Buford delivered back-to-back RBI singles to carry the Orioles to a 4-3 victory that got them out of Toronto with a split of the four-game series.

"That was sweet," manager Johnny Oates said. "We haven't seen too many of those."

How sweet was it?

Ward entered the game tied for the league lead with nine saves and had blown only one save opportunity. The Orioles entered the game 0-11 when they were trailing after eight innings. The game had about as much chance of turning around as Gregg Olson had of coming into the game in a save situation if it did.

Reynolds fell behind 0-2 in the count with a runner at second and two outs, but fought off several pitches before lining a single to right to tie the game. He stole second and scored the winning run on a line single to center by Buford.

How sweet was it?

Olson did get the call after the Orioles took the lead. He needed to get a fourth out in the ninth inning after Devon White reached base on a wild-pitch third strike, but survived to record his sixth save.

Mark Williamson got the victory for the three innings of one-hit relief that kept the Orioles close enough to make the comeback possible. Starter Arthur Rhodes also pitched well, but had to leave the game after he took a hard one-hopper off his left thigh in a three-run fifth inning.

How sweet was it?

The Orioles went up against Blue Jays ace Juan Guzman yesterday and still were able to go home with a split of the six-game trip. Despite their outward appearance as a team in crisis, they have won seven of their past 11 games. There still is a serious depth problem with center fielder Mike Devereaux and designated hitter Harold Baines out, but the team can thank Buford for turning a negative into a positive during his first week in the major leagues.

He hit his second home run, in the third inning, before delivering one of the biggest hits of the young season in the ninth.

"He's having fun," Oates said, "and I'm having fun watching him."

Since he was called up from Rochester last Monday, Buford is batting .421 with two homers and six RBI.

"I haven't had this much fun since I was 8 years old," said Buford, 22, who will make his Camden Yards debut tonight in the opener of a three-game series against the Boston Red Sox. "I'm on Cloud 9."

Reynolds hasn't had this much fun in a while himself. He made it all happen in the ninth, fighting off pitch after pitch to keep the team alive and then stealing the base to set up the winning run.

"All I was really doing was trying not to chase a bad pitch, like a slider in the dirt," Reynolds said. "It was basically, see the ball and hit the ball, but there was a point when I fouled off a pitch and I started to think that I might get him."

There was a point a couple of weeks ago when he was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to get things moving in the right direction. Reynolds was batting .154 on April 25, but he has 15 hits in his past 45 at-bats (.333) to raise his average to a respectable .250.

He dates the turnaround to a meeting he had with Orioles general manager Roland Hemond and assistant GM Frank Robinson in Chicago two weeks ago.

"They called me in and told me to relax," Reynolds said. "They told me that they knew what I could do and just to go out and have fun. It was very reassuring. It was nice. I think it got me over the hump."

Rhodes may not have gotten over the hump yesterday, but he also turned in a positive performance. He had not gotten out of a game with less than four earned runs in five starts, but he shut down the Blue Jays for four innings before a rocky fifth and a rocket through the middle ended his afternoon.

"It was real stiff when I came out, and it continued to tighten up on me," Rhodes said of his thigh, which was bruised by a Luis Sojo one-hopper. "I came in and iced it between innings, but it got even tighter."

It was the second time in the series that an Orioles pitcher had been injured by a shot through the box. Ben McDonald was hit on the foot by a ball off the bat of Roberto Alomar on Thursday night and required X-rays, but both pitchers are expected to make their next scheduled starts.

Tonight, the Orioles hope to extend their modest winning streak to three when Mike Mussina goes after his third straight shutout against Reisterstown native John Dopson and the Boston Red Sox at Oriole Park. The Orioles should be flying high after an uplifting win, but Oates isn't assuming anything anymore.

"I would hope so," he said, "but it's hard to tell with this team. We'll see how we come out tomorrow against Dopson, who has pitched well against us. I'm just proud of the way we battled today."

It could have been a discouraging loss, considering the chain of events that led up to the ninth inning. The Orioles held their own against Guzman, but let a two-run lead get away and then missed two big opportunities to turn the game around.

They had two on and one out in the sixth when Guzman gave way to Danny Cox, but Chris Hoiles grounded into a double play to end the inning. In the eighth, the tying run was in scoring position when Cal Ripken launched a deep line drive into the gap in left-center field with one out, but Joe Carter made a fine running catch to protect the one-run lead.

Enter Ward, who struck out Mark Leonard to end the eighth and struck out Leo Gomez to open the ninth before walking Hoiles on four pitches. Ward complicated the situation with a wild pitch to move the tying run into scoring position, but struck out David Segui to bring the Orioles down to their last out.

Orioles-Blue Jays scoring

Orioles first: Anderson walked. Anderson picked off, pitcher Guzman to first baseman Olerud. McLemore doubled to right. Ripken singled to right, McLemore to third. Leonard hit sacrifice fly to center fielder White, McLemore scored. Gomez grounded to third baseman Sprague. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 1, Blue Jays 0.

Orioles third: Buford homered to left-center on 1-1 count. Anderson lined to second baseman Sojo. McLemore singled to right. McLemore caught stealing, catcher Borders to second baseman Sojo. Ripken walked. Leonard grounded to first baseman Olerud. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 2, Blue Jays 0.

Blue Jays fifth: Sprague homered down left-field line on 2-1 count. Borders fouled to catcher Hoiles. Schofield singled to center. White doubled to left, Schofield to third. Sojo grounded to pitcher Rhodes, Schofield scored, White to third. Molitor singled to right, White scored. Carter singled to left, Molitor to second. Olerud flied to center fielder Buford. 3 runs, 5 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Blue Jays 3, Orioles 2.

Orioles ninth: Gomez struck out. Hoiles walked. Voigt ran for Hoiles. On D. Ward's wild pitch, Voigt to second. Segui struck out. Reynolds singled to right, Voigt scored. Reynolds stole second. Buford singled to center, Reynolds scored, and on throw home, Buford to second. Anderson lined to center fielder White. 2 runs, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 4, Blue Jays 3.

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