The Orioles couldn't take the heat last night. They ran into the hottest team in baseball on one of the hottest nights of the year, so there was nothing to do but cool off.
Reliever Mark Eichhorn, who took the mound with a string of 20 2/3 scoreless innings, gave up three runs in the sixth inning and the streaking Oakland Athletics went on to score a 6-4 victory before a sellout crowd of 47,722 at Camden Yards.
Stan Javier delivered a game-tying double and Geronimo Berroa provided the margin of victory with a two-run single as the A's continued their impressive midseason recovery with their fifth straight victory and 19th in the past 22 games.
It came at the expense of Eichhorn, who lost for the first time since the Texas Rangers roughed him up on April 8 -- in the third game of the season. It also cost Ben McDonald, who labored through five innings in the muggy heat and left with a one-run lead. And it cost the Orioles a game in the standings, because the first-place New York Yankees pulled out of a weeklong slump push their division lead back to 1 1/2 games with a victory over the California Angels.
How do the A's do it? They did it last night with a parade of pitchers that began with starter Todd Van Poppel and didn't end until manager Tony La Russa had set a club record by making stopper Dennis Eckersley the eighth Oakland pitcher to take the mound in a nine-inning game.
Van Poppel got the victory to improve to 5-7 and Eckersley recorded his 14th save of the season.
"There are only four games to go to the break," La Russa said. "We were going to come in here and shoot the works. We weren't going to walk into the clubhouse tonight without taking our best shot."
Who's to argue with his hands-on approach? La Russa has managed the A's right back into the American League West race after a horrendous start that appeared to end all hope of a respectable season.
"I don't think it's odd," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "That guy has managed in three World Series. That's three more than I've managed in."
How strange it might have seemed just a few weeks ago to consider a series between the Orioles and the A's to be a possible playoff preview, but that's exactly what this four-game series could be.
The A's, who owned the worst record in the major leagues when they fell to a season-low 19-43 on June 13, arrived at Camden Yards on a tremendous -- some might even say miraculous -- roll. They had won 12 of 13 games to climb back into contention in the mild, mild West and gave the Orioles a boost earlier this week with a three-game sweep of the Yankees.
"For a while, some of us were worrying about losing 120 or 130 games," La Russa said. "We couldn't win a game. Right now, my dominant feeling is, don't get too fired up. We're still an under-.500 club. If we can get over .500, I think we could be dangerous."
His club looked dangerous in the second inning, but it wasn't quite what La Russa had in mind. The Orioles scored a run on a walk and two singles off Van Poppel, and got a second run when Ruben Sierra's throw from right field caromed off a sliding Mark McLemore at third and rolled just far enough to allow him to score.
It might have been worse for the A's, but for a more beneficial bounce earlier in the inning. Van Poppel walked Harold Baines to open the inning and gave up a hard shot that glanced off first baseman Troy Neel. Fortunately for the A's, however, it bounced right to second baseman Brent Gates, who still had plenty of time to force Baines at second. When you're hot, you're hot.
If the A's looked less than resourceful in the second inning, they proved to be very resilient, cutting the Orioles' lead in half with a run in the third and taking the lead with two more in the fourth.
Scott Brosius led off the third with a double and scored on a pair of groundouts to short.
The A's took advantage of an outfield error and three singles to take the lead an inning later, scoring the tying run on a fielder's choice and moving ahead on a hit by No. 9 hitter Mike Bordick.
The fourth inning was one swing away from becoming a complete disaster for McDonald. He walked Rickey Henderson to load the bases with two outs before getting out of trouble when Javier bounced into a force play at second.
The Orioles temporarily regained the lead with two runs in the fifth, but Eichhorn ran head-first into the law of averages in his bid for an eighth straight scoreless appearance.
"It had to end sooner or later," McDonald said. "It was just unfortunate that it happened on a night like this. I thought I might squeak one out there."
McDonald (10-6) gave up three runs (one earned) on seven hits and needed 115 pitches to get through five innings of work. Not exactly the preferred level of efficiency on a night when the temperature was 97 degrees at game time.
"It was like a steam room out there," McDonald said. "I've pitched in some hot places, but this was right up there. I lost 11 pounds in five innings, so you know it's a tough night."
McDonald remains something of a mystery. He opened the season with a club-record seven straight victories, but now has just three victories in his last 11 starts.
He came back from a couple of poor performances to pitch a complete-game four-hitter his last time out, but even that did not change his luck.
California Angels left-hander Mark Langston pitched a three-hit shutout in a 1-0 win, keeping McDonald winless since June 17.
Van Poppel has had even more trouble putting together a consistent performance. He has shown flashes of brilliance -- such as the eight-inning, three-hit performance he fashioned in his only other start against the Orioles this year -- but has a 6.62 ERA.