OAKLAND, Calif. -- If most of Orioles ace Mike Mussina's starts are filet mignons, last night's at Oakland Coliseum was a Sloppy Joe.
Messy, messy, messy.
Yet neat enough to earn the victory, 5-4, over the Athletics before 20,212 at the Oakland Coliseum.
Mussina matched a career-high by allowing six walks. He struck out only two and allowed four earned runs in eight innings. He allowed one home run among seven hits, but that didn't count the three that had home run depth but landed just foul.
He threw 133 pitches, laboring through long counts and foul balls, usually with men on base.
Still, he found what he sought, his 14th victory.
Mussina (14-4) has had much prettier wins than his 50th, but the standings don't recognize beauty anyway, and the Orioles needed a win to remain 3 1/2 games behind the streaking New York Yankees.
Mussina (50-20), tied for second for the all-time best winning percentage (.714), has a 7-1 record in his past nine starts.
He relied on baseball's all-time saves leader to preserve his victory.
Lee Smith earned his major-league-leading 31st save and interrupted a string of four consecutive appearances of giving up at least one run, five appearances including the All-Star Game.
Smith issued a leadoff walk to Rickey Henderson, who was sacri ficed to second by Stan Javier, bringing up Geronimo Berroa, the A's leading RBI man.
Had Javier withdrawn his bunt, Henderson would have stolen the base anyway, a mistake that cost the A's a crucial out.
"I was kind of surprised they bunted there, but I appreciate the help," Smith said.
Henderson's antics at second base stalled Smith, who continually stepped off the rubber. When he came to the plate, he did so with success, striking out Berroa and retiring Troy Neel on a short-hopper shortstop Cal Ripken made a diving stop and throw from his knees on.
And Mussina appreciated the help he received from the Orioles' defense. Second baseman Tim Hulett made noteworthy plays on grounders in each direction. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro made a crucial scoop and Mike Devereaux made a running catch.
"We won this game on a lot of little things that won't show up in the box score," Mussina said. "Hulett made some great plays for someone who plays sporadically."
The Orioles also won thanks to a couple of hits that did show up in the box score.
Palmeiro and Chris Hoiles each hit two-run homers in the third inning to provide the muscle in support of Mussina.
The Orioles expanded a 4-3 lead by a run in the seventh when Chris Sabo singled through a drawn-in infield to score Brady Anderson, who led off the inning with a triple.
The A's quickly turned it back into a one-run game in the bottom of the inning when Henderson led off with a walk and later scored on Berroa's double to right field, cutting the Orioles' lead to 5-4.
Mussina allowed two runs in the second and another in the third before shutting out the A's the next three innings.
His biggest out came in the eighth when he got pinch hitter Ruben Sierra to ground a changeup to first base, stranding a runner at second.
"The eighth inning was adrenalin," Mussina said.
The Orioles turned a pair of two-run home runs in the third inning into a 4-2 lead.
Palmeiro hit his 20th home run, to center off left-hander Mike Mohler, with nobody out. Palmeiro's fifth home run in seven games tied the game, 2-2.
Hoiles homered for the 18th time, to left, on the first pitch thrown by right-handed reliever Billy Taylor.
Mohler, called up yesterday from Triple-A Tacoma to make the start, became the first left-hander to start a game for the A's this season and the first for the club since he made a start last Sept. 1.
Perhaps the A's should stick with right-handers for now. Mohler lasted one out into the third inning and allowed three runs (two earned) on two hits and two walks.
It wasn't all his fault. The Oakland infield nearly erred for the cycle with Mohler on the mound. Second baseman Scott "No relation to Roland" Hemond and third baseman Scott Brosius committed errors in the first inning when the Orioles left the bases loaded on Hoiles' flyout.
Bordick, Oakland's shortstop, was charged with an error in the third when first baseman Troy Neel failed to scoop his throw in the dirt.
The A's took a 2-0 lead in the second against Mussina.
The inning could have been worse for Mussina, but Devereaux came in to make a diving catch on Brosius' sinking line drive with the bases loaded and nobody out.
Opponent: Oakland Athletics
Site: Oakland (Calif.) Coliseum
Time: 4:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Sid Fernandez (6-4, 4.79) vs. Athletics' Todd Van Poppel (5-9, 6.51)
O'S EYE PHILLIES' JACKSON
The Orioles have identified Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Danny Jackson as No. 1 on their wish list in their search for pitching help.
"I would say yes, we will definitely make a trade before the season is over," assistant GM Frank Robinson said. "We'll get it done."