Orioles manager Phil Regan absorbs the anguish of every defeat like a sponge, and in the midst of his post-game pall after yesterday's 5-4 loss to the California Angels, he decided he needed to say something to his players.
So Regan, frustrated, walked across the hallway to the clubhouse, and delivered this very pointed message: "You played a great game."
That was it. That's all he could say, after the Orioles and Angels played a game so intense and intriguing that Angels shortstop Gary DiSarcina called it "exhausting."
Almost everybody involved did what they were supposed to do: The Orioles, with chances to tie the score and take the lead in the late innings, hit the ball hard, and the Angels responded with extraordinary defensive plays. The game ended with Lee Smith pitching to Cal Ripken, two future Hall of Famers going head to head with the outcome hanging in the balance, a drawn-out duel so suspenseful you were tempted -- just tempted -- to cover your eyes.
"It was something with the crowd," said California right fielder Tim Salmon. "There was just a buzz in the air."
The 45,975 had been mostly silent through the early innings, as California took a 5-2 lead. The Angels had beat up on Orioles starter Jamie Moyer, scoring a run in the first, and four more in the third, to more than offset a two-run homer by Kevin Bass in the first inning.
California starter Mark Langston cruised through five innings, and it appeared certain the Orioles' three-game winning streak and the home stand would finish on a downer.
But the Orioles stirred in the sixth. Rafael Palmeiro singled to start the inning and scored on Ripken's double.
Jeffrey Hammonds hit a roller into the shortstop hole, where DiSarcina could do nothing but stop it.
The buzz that Salmon referred to was getting louder, because Jeff Manto, who had five homers in his last three games, was walking to the plate. A Mighty Casey temp.
Manto lashed a hard grounder down the third-base line. Sure double, thought third base coach Steve Boros. Manto thought so, too. Easy double. Maybe Hammonds would score the tying run.
Maybe not. Carlos Martinez, the Angels' gangly third baseman who is more hitter than fielder, dove to his right, and speared the ball, back-handed. He climbed to his knees and threw across the infield, the ball skipping once, twice -- and beating Manto by a step.
"It was remarkable," Boros said. "He's 6-foot-5 and he needed every bit of it to make that play."
Orioles reliever Mike Oquist continued to hold California at bay, and in the bottom of the seventh, Orioles rookie Curtis Goodwin singled with one out. For Goodwin, it was his second hit of the day, his ninth multi-hit games in his first 10 games.
Next up, Bass, who had hit the 409-foot homer to Eutaw Street on Thursday, hit another in the first inning yesterday. A man on a roll. He turned on a pitch from Langston and drove it high and deep and . . . foul.
Then he hit another. No way this was foul. At least to the warning track, maybe more; Bass wasn't sure when he hit it.
Angels left fielder Tony Phillips raced back and felt for the wall. Two kids with gloves reached out from the stands, as Phillips leaped and reached up. Phillips felt somebody hit the back of his arm; Phillips' glove was over the wall.
And he felt the ball fall into his glove. Bass couldn't believe it -- he looked out at Phillips once, then twice.
"I was begging," Bass said later. "I thought the fans would reach in there and grab it and try to distract him or something."
Palmeiro kept the inning alive by doubling down the right-field line. Boros stopped Goodwin at third, which, for the moment, earned him the wrath of the crowd.
Troy Percival relieved Langston, to face Ripken. The shortstop's double in the sixth had extended his hitting streak to nine games, and even when Percival burned two strikes past him -- one clocked at 99 mph -- Ripken seemed to be locked in.
He slammed a grounder up the middle, past the mound. Ripken was thinking it would go through, and both runners would score.
But DiSarcina dove to his left, gloved the bouncer, and barely missed throwing out Ripken at first. Goodwin scored to make it 5-4, but Palmeiro had to stop at third and Hammonds flied out.
It was still 5-4 in the ninth when the gate in center field opened, and the unmistakable figure of Lee Smith ambled slowly onto the field. The all-time saves leader coming in to try to finish off his former employers -- and break a major-league record with his 16th consecutive save.
Harold Baines pinch-hit, worked the count to 3-2, and took an inside fastball for ball four. Brady Anderson pinch-ran for Baines, and the crowd was in a frenzy.
Goodwin dropped a hard bunt toward first, where J. T. Snow quickly fielded the ball. Anderson, running hard, was sure there would be a throw to second. But Snow made the safe play, tagging out Goodwin. Bass, 2-for-20 lifetime against Smith, grounded to second, and Anderson, the potential tying run, moved to third. Two out.
Pitching coach Chuck Hernandez jogged to the mound and asked Smith if he'd rather pitch to the next hitter, Palmeiro, or Ripken. What a choice. Smith decided to walk Palmeiro intentionally.
So Ripken strolled to the plate for his 8,187th career at-bat, against Smith, pitching in his 908th game. Ripken was 2-for-8 lifetime against Smith, not that that mattered.
Ripken said afterward that playing behind Smith, he had learned that the reliever's strength was pitching low and outside, and Ripken, hovering over the plate, was determined to take the strength away from him.
Ball one. Ball two, a howl from the crowd. Hammonds was on deck.
But Smith came back. Strike one. Strike two. Ripken then barely fouled off a pitch, low and outside. He fouled off another.
As the count deepened, center fielder Jim Edmonds shaded more and more toward right-center. The Angels' advance scout, Bobby Knoop, had reported that as Ripken got deeper into counts, he tried to hit the ball to the opposite field.
Smith threw outside, and Ripken started and then stopped his swing. Angels catcher Jorge Fabregas appealed to first base umpire Dale Scott for a strike. Ball three.
Edmonds, playing on instinct now, moved back to center field. Ripken looked for that slider or fastball outside. Smith threw outside.
His fastball tailed back across the plate and Ripken, jammed just slightly, lined it into center.
Where Edmonds caught the ball, almost directly in his tracks.
"Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," said Angels manager Marcel Lachemann.
Sometimes, all of it is good.
HITS AND MISSES
On the field: Orioles third baseman Jeff Manto, who had two homers Thursday, two Friday and one Saturday, went 0-for-4 yesterday. With his last homer, Manto became the 24th player to hit homers in four straight at-bats. Yesterday, Oakland's Mark McGwire became the 25th.
In the dugout: With Angels left-hander Mark Langston on the mound, Orioles manager Phil Regan loaded his lineup with right-handed hitters. At the end of the game, when California went to its right-handed relievers, Regan had left-handed hitters Brady Anderson, Harold Baines and Matt Nokes on his bench. Nokes pinch-hit with two outs in the eighth (and popped up), Baines walked to start the ninth and Anderson pinch-ran for Nokes.
In the clubhouse: Orioles outfielder Kevin Bass grounded out against Lee Smith in the ninth, and is now 2-for-21 against the future Hall of Famer. "Lee gets the best of me," Bass said. "All he does is throw the ball right here." Bass held his hand at his waist. "The day will come when I'll get him."