These are festive times at Camden Yards, where the Orioles are crossing the plate at a furious pace and the sellout crowds are beginning to break out with a premature case of pennant fever.
And why not, especially after rookie outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds hit a dramatic ninth-inning home run last night to defeat the Oakland Athletics, 8-7, and give the Orioles their first sudden-death victory of the year.
Hammonds' eighth home run capped a comeback from a 7-2 deficit and pulled the club within a half-game of the first-place New York Yankees with one game left before the All-Star break.
"I don't know how Joe Carter felt," Hammonds said afterward, "but I feel pretty good right now. I know this isn't the World Series, but it's the closest I've gotten yet."
Of course, Hammonds was referring to Carter's sudden-death home run in Game 6 of last year's Fall Classic. Last night's game didn't carry that kind of weight, but the home run was a major career highlight for a young player who has fought through a series of injuries to get back into the starting lineup.
"That was just an indication of what it could feel like," manager Johnny Oates said. "I sure hope we find out."
The game could have gone either way, and it almost did. Oakland right fielder Ruben Sierra came to the plate in the top of the ninth with four hits to his credit and hit a mammoth shot to right field off Orioles reliever Alan Mills, but it sailed just foul and Mills ended up striking out the side.
Hammonds led off the bottom of the ninth against former Cy Young Award winner Bob Welch and lined a 1-1 curveball into the left-field seats to give the Orioles their sixth victory in the past seven games.
That didn't seem possible only a few innings earlier, when left-hander Sid Fernandez departed after a rocky performance in which he gave up seven earned runs and didn't get out of the fifth. The Orioles trailed by five runs going into the bottom of that inning, but staged a four-run rally and went on to tie the game in the seventh.
It was the second time this year that the club has come back from five runs down to win.
"That just shows what kind of heart this club has," said Hammonds. "We just never quit."
Hammonds certainly didn't quit. He struck out in the seventh inning with the go-ahead run at third base, so he was pleased to have another chance to contribute in the late innings.
"Any one of the nine guys in our lineup could have done that," he said. "I'm just glad it was me, because I hadn't done anything else tonight."
There was an offensive contribution from every spot in the lineup, which is how it has been for much of the past two weeks. The eight-run performance was impressive, but it was only slightly better than the 7.5 runs that the Orioles have averaged in their past 14 games.
XTC The loss took some wind out of the streaking A's, but manager Tony La Russa was not critical of his pitching staff after starter Steve Ontiveros and the Oakland bullpen let a seemingly certain victory get away.
"We did a lot of really good things to win the game," La Russa said. "They just did more. That was the difference. I'll take that every day -- a five-run lead with Steve. I give the credit more to them for taking it away from Steve."
It was not an impressive night for the starting pitchers. Ontiveros gave up five runs on eight hits over 4 1/3 innings and Fernandez raised his ERA to 5.00. But the Orioles got a strong relief effort from Mark Williamson and an overpowering performance from Mills, who evened his record at 3-3.
Fernandez (5-4) was making his second start since returning from his most recent stay on the disabled list. He came back from a rib cage strain last week and allowed 11 runners in five innings on the way to a victory over the Seattle Mariners, a sketchy performance that turned out to be just a preview of last night's game.
This time, he fell victim to the long ball in the third inning, giving up a leadoff home run to Mike Bordick and a two-out, two-run shot to Sierra. They were the 19th and 20th home runs given up by Fernandez in 16 starts and helped the A's erase an early Orioles lead.
Third baseman Chris Sabo had greeted Ontiveros with a two-run blast to left field before the Orioles had made an out in the first inning. The A's took advantage of a leadoff double by Sierra in the second to score their first run, then performed their own investigation of the favorable atmospheric conditions that have turned Camden Yards into home run heaven.
Sierra also drove home a run with a double in the fifth as the A's added three more runs to push the score to 7-2.
The Orioles had to make an impressive comeback to get Fernandez off the hook. The first six Orioles batters reached base in the bottom of the fifth to chase Ontiveros and cut the Oakland lead to one. They might have tied the game in that inning if not for a running mistake by Sabo that slightly lessened the impact of the rally.
Sabo drove in the second run of the inning with a hit to right-center, then inexplicably tried to force the action and stretch his single into a double. He appeared to beat the throw, but slid past the bag and was tagged out by second baseman Brent Gates.
He argued the call with second base umpire Dale Scott, but even if he had been safe, his judgment on the bases was faulty. The Orioles were still down by three runs, so there was little sense in putting a potential run at risk with no one out. The mistake was magnified when Rafael Palmeiro followed with an RBI double and Cal Ripken delivered a run-scoring single that would have tied the game.
The Orioles got even in the seventh, when Harold Baines delivered a one-out single to score Palmeiro. That brought Hammonds to the plate, but he would have to wait a couple more innings to be a hero.
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Athletics' Ron Darling (7-9, 4.62) vs. Orioles' Jamie Moyer (3-6, 5.26)
Tickets: Several hundred scattered singles remain, not including bleacher and 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.