The Camden Yards stage was set for a first-place party at 4:15 p.m. yesterday, when the ninth inning began.
Around then, the New York Yankees were on the verge of losing to the California Angels, making it likely that the Orioles, with a 4-3 lead over the Oakland Athletics and their ace closer, Lee Smith, coming to the mound, would go into the All-Star break leading the American League East by a half-game.
Within 10 minutes, however, the decorations were put back in storage and the noisemakers were stashed away, too, thanks to Mark McGwire's two-run homer, which gave Oakland a 5-4 win.
McGwire, who has crashed more than a few Orioles parties in Baltimore, deposited a cut fastball 405 feet into the Orioles bullpen.
"Winning going into the ninth inning, it's disappointing not to win, but it's not like I came down on Christmas Day and didn't have any gifts under the tree," said Orioles outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds. "We still had a great day and a great first half. There's worse things that have happened to this team."
The Orioles (50-36) will go home for the break having won six of their past eight, 12 of their past 17 and possessing the team's best mark in 15 years at All-Star time.
More important, they trail the Yankees by just a half-game, not the optimum situation, but a lot better than the six-game deficit they faced six weeks ago.
"Three weeks ago, I said I'd do anything to go home at the break with 50 wins. That says it all," said manager Johnny Oates.
The ingredients were there for the Orioles to grab first place from the faltering Yankees, but the recipe came apart in the Oakland ninth.
Smith, who blew a save May 4 in Oakland, started the inning by giving up an infield hit to Ruben Sierra, who took second when Mark McLemore's off-balance throw skipped past first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.
The error was of little consequence, as McGwire, with a previous 0-for-5 record off Smith, took the first two pitches for strikes, then launched a booming shot over the left-center-field fence for his 14th homer and 39th and 40th RBIs in Baltimore during his eight-year career.
"I am human. I missed my spot. He [McGwire] didn't miss his," said Smith.
He added jokingly: "His first responsibility is to get the guy to third. He took two pitches on the outside made to get the guy to third. He'll be fined for not getting him over on the first two pitches."
The A's, who lost Saturday night on Hammonds' ninth-inning home run, ruined a fourth consecutive quality performance by Orioles starter Jamie Moyer, who gave up two early runs, then VTC choked Oakland's hitters, going seven innings and allowing two hits.
"This was his best location [of the year]," said Oates. "He made a lot of good pitches."
Said Smith: "The most disappointing thing about this is that Jamie goes out there and pitches great for 2 1/2 hours, and I go out there and screw it up in 10 minutes."
Moyer, who has had troubles in first innings this year, got bitten again by the bug, but only mildly, as the Athletics pushed across a run when Stan Javier reached on a walk, stole second and scored on Geronimo Berroa's single to right-center.
The Orioles answered in the bottom of the inning with two runs. After Brady Anderson walked and stole second and Cal Ripken walked two outs later, Harold Baines lashed a drive to right-center that Sierra badly misplayed into a double, scoring Anderson and Ripken.
The A's responded with a bases-empty homer by third baseman Scott Brosius in the second, but from there, Moyer clamped the Oakland offense shut, retiring 17 consecutive batters, striking out the side looking in the fourth and throwing 104 pitches before leaving after the seventh.
His departure may have seemed odd, but Oates was going to his best setup man, Mark Eichhorn, and his closer, Smith, two high-percentage moves.
In the Orioles' sixth, Palmeiro singled and moved to second on a walk to Ripken. Baines walked to load the bases, and Chris Hoiles collected his fifth hit in seven at-bats with the bases loaded, driving in Palmeiro and Ripken and placing runners at first and second with no one out.
First place and a big inning appeared within reach, but Hammonds grounded to short, forcing Hoiles, and McLemore grounded to first. Baines, from third, got in a rundown long enough for Hammonds and McLemore each to move into scoring position, but Mike Devereaux grounded to short to end the inning.
The A's got closer in the eighth with a run, taking advantage of Eichhorn's second straight shaky performance. Brosius singled, moved to second on a slow roller to short and scored on a pinch-hit double to right-center by Brent Gates.
Meanwhile, Oakland's Ron Darling stayed out of trouble long enough to get the win, going eight effective innings before turning things over to Dennis Eckersley, who, like Smith, blew a save chance on May 4.
Nothing of the sort happened yesterday, and the Orioles' first-place party was over before it even started.
Jamie Moyer (3-6) has pitched in his share of hard luck this year. Here are five of his more recent starts that could have been wins
Date .. .. ..Opp. .. ..Left game .. .. ..Final .. .. ..Dec.
7/10 .. ... .Oak. .. ..After 7th, .. .. .L, 5-4 .. .. ...ND
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..up 4-2
6/30 .. .. ..Cle. .. ..In 8th, .. .. .. .L, 4-2 .. .. .. .L
.. .. .. .. .. .. ... .tied 2-2
6/25 .. .. ..Tor. .. ..In 7th, .. .. .. .W, 4-1 .. .. ...ND
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..tied 1-1
6/15 .. .. ..N.Y. .. ..In 8th, .. .. .. .W, 8-4 .. .. ...ND
.. .. .. .. .. ... .. .up 3-2
6/04 .. .. ..Chi. .. ..In 7th, .. .. .. .L, 7-1 .. .. .. .L
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..down 2-1