The biggest given for the Orioles over the first three months of the season -- Lee Smith taking the mound for the ninth inning and walking off with a save -- suddenly has turned into the scariest.
Scarier than ace Mike Mussina taking himself out of the game after seven innings and 98 pitches because his shoulder stiffened.
Did it ever turn in a hurry for Smith.
Mark McGwire the day before the All-Star break.
Fred McGriff in the All-Star Game.
Bo Jackson last night.
Three home runs. Three blown saves. One giant headache for the Orioles, who lost, 4-3, when the Angels scored two runs off Smith (1-3) in the ninth. Spike Owen tripled to left to score Gary DiSarcina from first base to drive in the winning run after Jackson's home run to right tied it.
Smith took the mound in the ninth last night in search of his 31st save, which would have preserved Mussina's 14th victory.
Mussina had taken himself out after seven innings after his shoulder blade muscles had stiffened, though not nearly to the extent it had two weeks ago, he said.
"He said his back was stiff and he'd had it," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said.
As for Smith, Oates said he still is his closer, but the very fact the question even was asked indicates how swiftly Smith's fortunes have changed.
"You keep sending him out there, but as you know with [Gregg] Olson, there's a limit to everything," said Oates, who took the closer's job away from Olson early last season.
The limit has not been reached.
"He's still our closer," Oates said. "You don't panic that quick. The reason we are where we are is because of what he did for us in April, May and June. We need him if we're going to do anything. We've got to find a way to get him back on track, back having those 1-2-3 innings."
Instead, the Angels got 1-2-3 hits off Smith and scored two runs.
Smith struck out J. T. Snow and got ahead of Jackson, 0-1, on a disputed low-and-away pitch. Jackson saw another fastball headed for the same location and decided he should swing, lest plate umpire Ed Bean call another strike.
Jackson parked the low-and-away fastball in the right-field seats, homering for the second night in a row and the ninth time this season. It was the fourth career pinch home run for Jackson, who was hitting for Harold Reynolds.
A 3-2 game became a 3-3 game, but not for long. DiSarcina singled up the middle and, after Rex Hudler popped out, Owen tripled down the left-field line.
Smith has blown five of 35 save opportunities and has allowed four home runs. All four homers -- Troy Neel and McGwire of Oakland, Tony Phillips of Detroit and Jackson -- have resulted in blown saves.
Smith has allowed a run in each of his past four appearances, five counting the All-Star Game.
L No fewer than 27 of his first 32 appearances were scoreless.
The Orioles also lost a game in the standings to the Yankees, who opened a 1 1/2 -game lead on the Orioles.
Smith's results have changed even if his demeanor has not.
"I've been through it before," said baseball's all-time saves leader.
"I'm going to win another. I'm going to save another. I'm going to lose another. You don't worry too much when you struggle, and you don't get too excited when you're going good."
The Angels' ninth-inning rally erased the contributions of Rafael Palmeiro, who hit his 17th home run in the first inning and singled in the go-ahead run in the seventh off Angels starter Chuck Finley.
Also, Chris Sabo homered for the third consecutive night and the fourth time in five games, reaching double figures for the season, giving Mussina 2-0 lead in the third inning.
Mussina (13-4, 2.97), whose last start before the All-Star break was delayed two days to give his sore shoulder blade muscles extra rest, allowed two runs and seven hits in seven innings, walked none and struck out five.
He allowed runs in the fifth and sixth and sat and stiffened as the Orioles sent six hitters to the plate in the seventh. Mussina made it through the seventh, but it was Alan Mills who took the mound for the eighth.
"It was a 20-minute inning and those type of things don't help a lot," Mussina said of the seventh. "But it [shoulder blade muscle stiffness] wasn't like it was a couple of games ago. I didn't think it was in our best interest or my best interest to keep going out there. All we needed was two more shutout innings and I didn't think I was the best one to do it at the time because of the way I felt."
Mills gave the Orioles one of those shutout innings, pitching himself into and out of a jam in the eighth.
Smith couldn't do the same.
BoJax pulled a ReggieJax in the clutch.
"I'm not trying to brag or anything, but when I hit it I had that feeling," Jackson said.
So did the Orioles, but theirs was a sinking feeling. They remain supportive of their closer, however.
"Everyone hits stretches like that when things don't go well for JTC them," Mussina said of Smith. "He's in one of those stretches now. He'll come out of it and pitch the way he pitched at the beginning of the season."
Said Oates: "He's the closer. There's no doubt about it. He's saved 30 of 35. That'll be 60 of 70. I'll take that. We're going to need him if we're going to do anything."
Opponent: California Angels
Site: Anaheim (Calif.) Stadium
Time: 4:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jamie Moyer (3-6, 5.10) vs. Angels' Russ Springer (2-1, 6.91)
In three of his past four appearances, including the All-Star Game, Lee Smith has blown a save opportunity and allowed a home run. A breakdown of his past four appearances:
Date .. .. ..Opp. .. .. ..Inn. .. .H .. .ER .. .HR
7/10 .. .. ..Oak. .. .. ...1 .. ...3 .. ..2 .. ..1
7/12 .. .. ...NL .. .. .. .1 .. ...1 .. ..1 .. ..1
7/14 .. .. Calif. .. .. ...1 .. ...1 .. ..1 .. ..0
7/15 .. ...Calif. .. .. ... 2/3 .. ...3 .. ..2 .. ..1