Either the Orioles are an improving team that just had a bad game, or they are a bad team that somehow managed to win four straight games.
Because last night, on the heels of the four-game winning streak, they were truly awful, losing to the Oakland Athletics, 14-6. A national television audience and a Camden Yards crowd of 37,496 watched a disaster in progress: the Orioles bullpen working in relief of Sid Fernandez.
Oakland left fielder Craig Paquette hit a two-run homer and grand slam and drove in seven runs. The game got so out of hand that shortstop Cal Ripken, who collected his 1,200th career RBI in the sixth inning, sat out the last two innings, his first rest of the year.
"There's not much to say when you get beat that badly," said Orioles manager Phil Regan.
Left fielder Brady Anderson, who suffered back spasms when he woke up yesterday morning, was removed for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning, and Regan said he could be out one or two days, or, in a worst-case scenario, seven days. Anderson thinks he'll be back in the lineup quickly.
"I'll wait and see how it feels tomorrow," he said. "I really don't think it's a big deal. In fact, I'm surprised I'm getting asked questions [about it]."
Anderson then grabbed a towel and headed for the showers. "I've got to go," he said, joking. "I've got surgery coming up."
After Fernandez pitched into the sixth inning for the first time this year, four Orioles relievers -- Mike Oquist, Alan Mills, Brad Pennington and Armando Benitez -- gave up nine hits, five walks and 10 runs over a span of two innings.
From the time the sixth inning began, with the score tied 3-3, to the top of the eighth inning, which began with a single and a walk for Oakland, the Athletics sent 22 batters to the plate, and 16 reached base.
Fernandez went out to the mound for a start that was important in many ways. Important to the suddenly streaking Orioles. Important, too, because the Orioles don't have a lot of options with Fernandez.
Because he's only in the second year of a three-year contract, they owe him too much money -- about $5 million -- to simply release him, according to club sources. They can't trade him; nobody else would take on the contractual obligations. It would be hard to use him out of the bullpen, because of his slow pace and his control problems (and because the Orioles already are having problems finding work for another left-hander, Pennington). He is healthy, apparently, so they can't place him on the disabled list.
No, the Orioles needed Fernandez to pitch well last night as badly as Fernandez needed to pitch well for himself.
The first Oakland batter, Mike Bordick -- the very first Oakland batter -- mashed a homer, a liner that screamed into the left-field stands. Fernandez put his hands on his hips and kicked at the grass around the pitcher's mound.
Then Fernandez settled down. With one out, he walked Ruben Sierra, but struck out Mark McGwire with a high fastball, and Sierra was caught stealing -- the first time this season that any runner had been thrown out trying to steal second by a catcher with Fernandez on the mound.
In the second inning, Fernandez struck out Terry Steinbach, Brent Gates and Scott Brosius in order; his fastball, which has gradually gained steam as the year has progressed, was averaging 89 mph and reaching 91. Fernandez walked off the mound to a round of applause, and behind the Orioles dugout a few fans stood and clapped.
Fernandez struck out Paquette to open the third inning, got Andy Tomberlin on a fly to left and Bordick on a pop to short.
Two straight 1-2-3 innings. In his first five starts, Fernandez had a to tal of three 1-2-3 innings.
He would've had another in the fourth, if it weren't for an error. After Geronimo Berroa and Sierra flied out, McGwire hit a low liner to center. Curtis Goodwin, the Orioles center fielder, has hit well and stirred things up on the bases, but in the last two days he's had trouble in the outfield, getting poor first steps.
He misread McGwire's liner, and the ball fell just in front of him as he fell; Goodwin was charged with an error. Steinbach flied out to end the inning.
The Athletics got to Fernandez in the fifth inning. Gates doubled, and after Brosius struck out, Paquette launched a two-run homer to center, which tied the score at 3. Fernandez finished the inning, the first time he completed five innings.
Fernandez was removed in the sixth after giving up a leadoff single in the sixth. He threw strikes on 59 of his 97 pitches; not great, and not horrible, either.
"I thought Sid threw the ball fairly well," said Regan. "I thought he had a good fastball tonight.
"He was much better tonight."
But if the Orioles felt at all encouraged by his progress, all the good feelings were forgotten when the bullpen turned a tie game into a rout.
First in relief, Oquist. The results: two-run homer (by Sierra), single, flyout, single. Regan called for help.
Second in relief, Mills, making just his second appearance since May 27 because of what Regan called a tired arm: walk, grand slam by Paquette, single, stolen base, another single and another run. Regan went out again. (Incidentally, all three of Paquette's homers this year have come against the Orioles.)
Finally, Pennington closed out the inning, but Oakland had scored seven runs.
They added four more runs in the seventh, after Pennington walked three straight hitters to load the bases with one out.
The winning streak? Done.
"I think this is a problem we've had," said Regan. "When the starter doesn't give us innings, and we go to the bullpen for the sixth and seventh, we've had some problems in those innings."
The Orioles had taken a 3-1 lead in the second inning, when Nokes, hitting .063, hit a three-run homer, his first extra-base hit since April 28. One small victory for Nokes, one big loss for the Orioles.
Opponent: Seattle Mariners
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Mariners' Randy Johnson (5-0, 2.16) vs. Orioles' Ben McDonald (1-2, 4.93)
Tickets: 11,100 remain