OAKLAND, Calif. -- Orioles, start your engines.
For the wild-card race.
Not that the American League East race is over, not in July, not even in a strike season, but the Orioles' chances of winning their division never looked more distant than in the wake of yesterday's fall-from-ahead, 7-6 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
The Orioles blew a 6-0 lead in the final three innings and dropped to 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading New York Yankees.
"That's the toughest loss so far this year," Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said.
A loss reliever Alan Mills was in no mood to discuss.
Mills took the mound for the start of the eighth inning, inheriting a 6-2 lead from starter Jamie Moyer.
Six hitters later, the game was tied. Scott Hemond, playing only because starting catcher Terry Steinbach was ejected by first base umpire John Hirschbeck, drilled a three-run home run over the left-field fence with two outs.
"That was the best ejection of my career, no doubt about it," Steinbach said.
The A's tied it in the eighth by crushing a baseball and won it in the ninth on a wild pitch.
Mark Eichhorn's low pitch to Ruben Sierra with the bases loaded bounced away from catcher Chris Hoiles, enabling Henderson to slide home headfirst ahead of Hoiles' throw to Eichhorn.
"I didn't even know I missed it," Hoiles said. "I looked in the glove and it wasn't there. It hit my glove. I don't know how it got through. With Rickey's speed, he was able to score. Not too many guys would have scored there."
The Orioles went 4-5 on the season's final West Coast trip and in the process lost five games in the standings. The Orioles have led in each of their past seven losses, six times as late as the sixth inning.
But none was as crushing as yesterday's.
"We've just got to forget about it, go home and start a winning streak," Palmeiro said. "There's a lot of season left. One game doesn't make orbreak us."
Perhaps so, but seldom does a loss bend a team as much as this onedid the Orioles.
The Orioles are the farthest from first place they have been sinceJune 4. Meanwhile, the A's moved within two games of the Texas Rangers in the AL West, the closest they've been to first place since April 27.
The change in fortunes never was so drastic as late yesterday afternoon. Moyer brought a three-hit shutout and a 6-0 lead into the seventh inning.
At the time, the Yankees were trailing the California Angels down in Southern California and the Orioles were primed to move within 3 1/2 games of first place.
A beautiful, breezy day in Northern California suddenly turned brutally ugly for the Orioles. They fell from ahead almost exactly when the Yankees came from behind on Don Mattingly's pinch-hit, three-run home run.
One long road trip capsulized in a matter of moments.
Sierra doubled to lead off the seventh, the first extra-base hit of the game for the A's. Mark McGwire followed with a two-run home run.
Moyer stayed on the mound for the rest of the inning and Mills came on to start the eighth to face the top of the order.
Henderson singled to right. Four runs down, Henderson didn't let that deter him from stealing second and third. Geronimo Berroa singled him home with a one-out blooper, cutting the Orioles' lead to three runs.
Mills then walked Sierra and popped up McGwire, bringing Hemond to the plate with two on and two out. Hemond's second home run was the seventh allowed by Mills.
Where was the pitch?
"It doesn't really matter now," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said.
For the record, it was up and away. Then it was up, up and away.
Mills started the ninth and retired Mike Bordick. Oakland manager Tony La Russa sent Troy Neel in to hit for Francisco Matos and Oates countered by bringing left-hander Tom Bolton out of the bullpen.
Appearing in a game for the third time in July and facing his seventh batter this month, Bolton tried to shake off the cobwebs but didn't get them all. He walked Neel and was replaced by Eichhorn.
Henderson singled and Stan Javier walked, loading the bases for Oakland's top RBI man, Berroa. He grounded to shortstop Cal Ripken, who delivered a strike to the plate for one out. Berroa just beat Hoiles' throw to first for what would have been a double play. The ball popped out of Palmeiro's glove after Hirschbeck's safe call.
Eichhorn's first pitch to Sierra was the game's final one, a wild pitch that punctuated a wild finish and reiterated the importance of the wild-card race.
The only good news for the Orioles yesterday was that the Cleveland Indians lost, maintaining a two-game lead over the Orioles in the wild-card race.
The Orioles start a four-game series against the Indians tomorrow with a day-night doubleheader.
"I think everyone in here realizes we're not just battling the Yankees, we're battling the White Sox and the Indians, too," Palmeiro said.
Four teams vying for three playoff spots.
One team wasted a big opportunity. What else did the Orioles waste?
Mike Devereaux's ninth home run, to make it 6-0 in the fifth, and his second since Cleveland's Chad Ogea beaned him May 8.
Moyer's strong seven-inning outing in which he allowed six hits and did not walk a batter.
Harold Baines' two-run double in the first and a three-run third.
A shellacking of Oakland right-hander Bobby Witt, who allowed five runs on seven hits in 2 1/3 innings.
"This was a team loss," Palmeiro said. "We were up 6-0, had a chance to put them away and didn't do it. We all lost it."
And it only counts as one loss.
One huge loss.
RACING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION
Since the All-Star break, the Yankees have won 10 of 11 games and the Orioles, meanwhile, have lost five of nine and fallen behind by 5 1/2 games.
* AL EAST AT ALL-STAR BREAK
Team .. .. W .. L .. Pct. .. GB
New York 50 . 35. .588 .. --
Orioles . 50 .. 36. .581 ... 1/2
AL EAST TODAY
Team .. . . W .. . L .. . Pct. .. GB
New York .. 60 .. 36 .. . .625 .. --
Orioles ... 54 .. 41 .. . .568 .. 5 1/2