Before last night's game it was a tossup as to which was the better possibility -- starting on time, or the Cleveland Indians not scoring in the first inning.
As it developed, the long odds prevailed on both counts.
After daylong showers, the skies cleared in time for the Orioles and Indians to proceed on schedule. And Rick Sutcliffe not only got through the first inning without allowing a run, but he also backed it up with seven more scoreless innings before giving up a run in the ninth as the Orioles beat the Indians, 8-1.
The win was the Orioles' fifth in a row, and allowed them to stay three games behind the Toronto Blue Jays, who beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 11-10, in 11 innings last night. The Orioles moved within one game of the second-place Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, both of whom lost.
Of equal significance the victory enabled Sutcliffe (9-7) to end a personal five-game losing streak. In seven starts over that span, the veteran right-hander had allowed 52 hits and 30 earned runs in 36 1/3 innings for a staggering 7.43 ERA.
As has been the case in the past when he has struggled, much of the damage against Sutcliffe had been inflicted in the early innings. He has allowed a club-high 22 runs in the first inning, and in all but one game during his losing streak the opposition scored in the first.
But last night provided a completely different scenario for Sutcliffe, who allowed eight hits while working with the luxury of a generous early lead. The Orioles scored early and often with a well-balanced offense that reached the 10-hit mark for the 20th time in the past 28 games.
David Segui started it with his eighth home run of the year. Cal Ripken contributed two RBI singles among his three hits. And Jack Voigt had yet another stellar performance with three doubles and two walks.
"It's been a long time since I've seen some of you guys," Sutcliffe quipped during a post-game session with the media. He had survived a two-out meeting with manager Johnny Oates to get his third complete game of the season, and was obviously buoyed by his performance.
"I don't know how to describe it," he said of his losing streak. "You start doubting yourself, you start disliking yourself. You know the team is winning and you feel like you're holding it back. It's nice to get a win."
Sutcliffe went into the game without a victory since June 23, when he became the first pitcher to complete a game against the Detroit Tigers this season. But he got a good omen early, when he retired the first three Indians.
The first inning had been this unkind to Sutcliffe during his losing streak: In those previous seven starts, the opposition scored 16 times, an average of 2.3, in the opening inning.
But there was a glimmer of anticipation after his last start, a 2-1 loss to Boston last Sunday. That was the only time during his win famine that Sutcliffe did not allow a first-inning run. It also was his best effort in almost six weeks.
"After the first inning of that game, Johnny [Oates] called [trainer] Richie Bancells and asked for some smelling salts," said Sutcliffe. "He said, 'The first inning's over and there's a zero on the board.'
"It [his first-inning difficulties) is a confidence thing, I guess," said Sutcliffe, who said he has made a slight adjustment in his pre-game routine. "Right at the end of my warmup Boz [pitching coach Dick Bosman] and I go over the first three hitters.
"We get batters up there and the catcher calls the pitches just like we were in the game and we try to go through the first inning before we get there."
Once beyond the first inning last night, Sutcliffe was not without some anxious moments. But he was able to handle two potential trouble spots routinely. Reggie Jefferson hit a two-out triple off the top of the center-field fence in the second, but Sutcliffe struck out Jeff Treadway.
An inning later the Indians loaded the bases with two outs and Sutcliffe escaped by getting Albert Belle to sky the first pitch to Brady Anderson in left field. Meanwhile, left-hander Jeff Mutis (2-5) was having trouble getting the third out, giving up runs in the second and third innings after retiring the first two hitters each time.
Segui opened the scoring with his homer in the second. The Orioles added another run when Tim Hulett walked and scored on the first of Voigt's doubles.
In the third, a walk to Mike Devereaux preceded singles by Harold Baines and Ripken -- and Mutis was through an inning later, this time without recording an out. Another double by Voigt and a single by Mark Parent made it 4-0 and finished Mutis.
Reliever Matt Young, another left-hander, hit Anderson with a pitch and eventually gave up run-scoring singles to Devereaux and Ripken, and Sutcliffe was in a comfort zone.
"He pitched as well as I have seen him pitch in a long time," said Oates.
Sutcliffe took a five-hit shutout into the ninth inning, when he allowed three singles.
When it was over, Sutcliffe was able to relax. "When you struggle, confidence is everything and you tend to doubt yourself more when runners are on base," he said. "Until you break through with a win, it's tough to feel good about yourself."
And last night, Sutcliffe was able to leave the park feeling good about himself for the first time in more than six weeks.