The afternoon was sizzling and so was Fernando Valenzuela. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence.
The temperature was 101 degrees when the Orioles left-hander took the mound yesterday, but he beat the heat and he held the Chicago White Sox to two hits over eight innings en route to a 6-0 victory at Camden Yards.
You want hot? Valenzuela has not given up a run in his past three starts. He will carry a string of 23 2/3 scoreless innings into his next start. He has combined with fellow comeback left-hander Jamie Moyer to go unscored upon for five starts and 40 2/3 innings. Compared with that, the temperature seemed almost moderate.
Everyone marveled at Valenzuela's endurance afterward, everyone but Valenzuela himself. He knows what it's like to pitch in the heat. He grew up in it, and lest he forget his roots, he spent last year in the Mexican League, where temperatures are in the 90s and 100s all summer.
"The All-Star Game was in Yucatan last year," he said. "It was just like this."
Nevertheless, manager Johnny Oates took some precautions. He lifted Valenzuela after the eighth, even though another scoreless inning would have given the veteran a major league-leading third shutout.
That would have been nice, but Oates likes to look at the big picture. Valenzuela figures to be pitching every fifth day for the rest of the season and the Orioles -- who moved within 1 1/2 games of first place yesterday -- might need him to pitch some big games down the stretch.
"He was a lot more than tired," Oates said. "He struggled with hislast couple of hitters. I talked to Boz [pitching coach Dick Bosman] and I talked to Fernando. He didn't want to go back out there."
Valenzuela does not dispute this account. He has reached the point in his career where leading the major leagues in shutouts would not have a significant effect on his reputation. He also has reached the point when a 145-pitch performance might have a significant effect on the rest of his season.
"I like to finish my games," he said, "but there are times when that just isn't possible."
He was just happy to improve his record to 4-7, a record that could easily be 7-4 with a little offensive support earlier in the season.
The Orioles' hitters have been pitching in a little more lately. Catcher Chris Hoiles made the biggest contribution, delivering his latest argument against the current All-Star selection process with a two-run home run (his 18th) that put the Orioles in front in the fourth inning.
It was Hoiles' fourth homer in four games and his 10th in the past 20. He is leading all major-league catchers in home runs and has increased his RBI total to 45.
"I don't know what it is," he said. "Maybe it's the swing and maybe it's the pitches that I'm getting. I don't even want to think about it at this point."
Until Hoiles, White Sox starter Wilson Alvarez was also throwing zeros, waiting for his explosive offensive lineup to do what it did the last time it came face-to-face with Valenzuela. The White Sox hit him hard in the second of two rocky April starts that initiated Valenzuela into the Orioles' rotation.
It didn't happen this time. Valenzuela gave up a single to Joey Cora in the first inning and a two-out single to Craig Grebeck in the eighth. He walked three batters in between, but the White Sox never moved a runner into scoring position against him.
The Orioles added a run in the fifth on a sacrifice fly by Harold Reynolds. They got three more in the eighth on a run-scoring double by Cal Ripken and a two-run pinch single by Harold Baines. Right-hander Mark Williamson pitched a scoreless ninth
to secure the club's fourth victory in the past five games.
The Orioles' divisional deficit continues to diminish. They remain in fourth place, but the four top teams in the American League East will be squeezed tightly together when they open the second half Thursday, and even the fifth-place Boston Red Sox have moved within four games.
How unlikely this would have seemed six weeks ago, when the Orioles were 10 1/2 games out of first place. Now, everything seems to be turning their way, but Oates isn't ready to start celebrating.
"That means nothing to me -- two days before the All-Star break," he said. "It's a whole lot better than 10 1/2 back, but it still doesn't mean a single thing. Talk to me in October."
If the Orioles continue to get big performances from the likes of Valenzuela and Moyer, there might be a lot to talk about. The starting rotation looked shaky a couple of weeks ago, when Mike Mussina was fighting through some shoulder soreness, but the club needs only to get veteran Rick Sutcliffe back on track to put a serious scare into the rest of the division.
"I don't know what the whole year is going to hold," Oates said, "but so far those guys [Moyer and Valenzuela] have been outstanding. Who's to say they aren't for real? Sutcliffe came back after arm problems, didn't he? Maybe lightning will strike three or four times in the same place."
Somehow, the question of Valenzuela's age came up. He is 32, but there has long been suspicion that someone fudged on his real age early in his career. It has become a running joke, one that even Valenzuela takes good-naturedly.
"I don't care," Oates said. "He could be 62 for all I care if he throws like he did today. I've seen 18-year-olds that couldn't have hung out there as long as he did."
The heat took its toll on everyone. Hoiles stayed behind the plate for the duration, then spent a half-hour in the training room cooling down. He's another guy who's hotter than the weather, but he'll probably get the day off today.
"It's pretty hard with the heat and humidity," he said. "It takes its toll, but the outcome makes it feel a little better."
Orioles-White Sox scoring Orioles fourth: McLemore singled to center. Devereaux flied out center fielder Johnson. Ripken flied out to right fielder Burks. Hoiles homered to left on 3-2 count, McLemore and Hoiles scored. Segui singled to center. Hammonds grounded out to shortstop Grebeck. 2 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 2, White Sox 0.
Orioles fifth: Anderson walked. Hulett flied out to center fielder Johnson. On pitcher Alvarez's throwing error on pickoff attempt, Anderson to third. Reynolds hit sacrifice fly to center fielder Johnson, Anderson scored. McLemore lined out to center fielder Johnson. 1 run, 0 hits, 1 error, 0 left on. Orioles 3, White Sox 0.
Orioles eighth: Reynolds flied out to center fielder Johnson. McLemore flied out to center fielder Johnson. Devereaux singled to shortstop. Ripken doubled to left center, Devereaux scored. Hoiles intentionally walked. Segui walked, Ripken to third, Hoiles to second. Hernandez relieved Alvarez. Baines, pinch hitting for Hammonds, singled to center, Ripken and Hoiles scored, Segui to third. Buford ran for Baines. Anderson struck out. 3 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Orioles 6, White Sox 0.