TORONTO -- When Orioles reliever Armando Benitez wouldn't wear the ugly clothes they picked out for him, his teammates almost left him in Milwaukee. But last night, after Benitez gave up a game-winning single to Toronto's Alex Gonzalez in the bottom of the ninth, they came to his defense.
Two pitches before Gonzalez's hit, Benitez threw a 2-2 fastball to the shortstop which he and other Orioles felt should've been called strike three. Instead, home plate umpire Derryl Cousins called the pitch a ball, and after Gonzalez fouled off one 3-2 pitch, he hammered a bouncer back up the middle to beat the Orioles, 6-5.
"That pitch was right there," said Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "Unbelievable."
Catcher Chris Hoiles said, "I thought it was a decent pitch."
Arthur Rhodes said, "That was a strike. I think the umpire knew it was a strike, too. I think he knew he blew it."
The Orioles' precious win streak of four games, carried through a three-game sweep of Milwaukee earlier this week, seems like a distant memory now that the Orioles have lost two games to the last-place Blue Jays. Toronto, which had dropped eight straight games after losing to Boston on Tuesday, is within two games of the Orioles. It was the 11th time the Blue Jays have won in their last at-bat against the Orioles at SkyDome.
The Orioles had come back from a three-run deficit to tie the score in the eighth, on Chris Hoiles' pinch homer. Brady Anderson opened the ninth with a bunt single and moved to second on a bunt, but the rally fizzled.
In the bottom of the ninth, Candy Maldonado singled and advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Mike Huff. The managers dueled, Toronto's Cito Gaston inserting the left-hand hitting Angel Martinez. Orioles skipper Phil Regan countered with left-hander Jesse Orosco, and Gaston batted Lance Parrish for Martinez and inserted Roger Cedeno as a pinch runner for Maldonado. Orosco hit Parrish with a pitch.
Regan came out again, calling for a right-hander, and the imposing figure of Armando Benitez emerged from behind the right-field fence, where the visitors' bullpen is located.
"I was looking for a strikeout," Regan said.
Benitez, pitching to Alex Gonzalez, fell behind in the count 2-0, then came back with two strikes. Hoiles set up inside for a 2-2 pitch on the outer edge of the plate, and Benitez threw a fastball on the outside part of the plate. Ball three.
The Orioles' bench erupted at Cousins, and Benitez glared in. Hoiles argued, and Cousins gave, as Hoiles said, "an umpire's reply."
Benitez stepped off the mound in anger. "It looked like he was a little upset," Gonzalez said.
Benitez threw another fastball, which Gonzalez fouled off. Another, and Gonzalez laced it into center field, scoring Cedeno.
"It wasn't close," Benitez said. "Everybody said it was down the middle."
The Blue Jays led, 5-2, after Roberto Alomar's RBI single in the fifth inning.
But all at once, Jays starter Pat Hentgen lost his control. He walked Anderson leading off the seventh. He went to a three-ball count on second baseman Manny Alexander before Alexander fouled out, third baseman Ed Sprague reaching into the stands to backhand the ball.
Hentgen fell behind in the count again to Palmeiro, before Palmeiro singled to right. Cal Ripken grounded out hard to third, both runners advancing. With the left-handed hitting Harold Baines coming up, Gaston called on left-hander Tony Castillo to relieve Hentgen.
Regan called Baines back from the on-deck circle, replacing him with the switch-hitting Kevin Bass, and the veteran outfielder delivered: He swatted a high fastball into left field to score Anderson and Palmeiro and draw the Orioles within a run.
With one out in the eighth, Regan inserted another pinch hitter, the slumping Hoiles, who is sharing the catcher's job with Greg Zaun.
Some five hours before the game, Hoiles had taken extra batting practice. Regan was on the mound throwing, and afterward he had raved about Hoiles. Best he'd seen Hoiles swing, Regan said afterward.
In the eighth, when Castillo hung a curve and Hoiles crushed it off the facade of the lower deck, Regan's earlier words reverberated. The homer, only Hoiles' second since June 9 and the Orioles' first pinch homer of '95, wiped out a lead the Blue Jays built Rhodes.
Rhodes dominated Boston last Sunday, and afterward, Zaun said more of the same could be expected from the left-hander, and he was right, to a degree. Rhodes continued to throw more first-pitch strikes, continued to work quickly, looked much more comfortable in his delivery. He struck out four in the first five innings.
But when he strayed, when he couldn't throw strikes, he got hurt. Case in point, the bottom of the third.
Rhodes walked Maldonado leading off the inning. Huff grounded out and Randy Knorr struck out, but Gonzalez lashed a single to right. Paul Molitor worked the count to 3-2 and then turned on a pitch inside and pulled it down the left-field line and Gonzalez scored to tie it.
Blue Jays first baseman John Olerud walked with one out in the fourth, and one out later Maldonado hit a 3-2 pitch over the left-field wall.
Rhodes walked Knorr to open the fifth. Gonzalez bunted Knorr to second, and Molitor struck out. Two outs. Again. But Alomar singled, and Knorr rambled home. Toronto had four hits in 6 1/3 innings against Rhodes last night, and each and every one came with two outs and a runner on base.
The Orioles had taken an early 2-0 lead. Curtis Goodwin had singled with two outs in the second, moved to second on a single by Anderson and scored on a bloop hit down the right-field line by Alexander.
Then, in the top of the third, Ripken ripped a high fastball over the left-field wall, his seventh homer of the year.
HITS AND MISSES
On the field: Roberto Alomar may be headed for the Hall of Fame, but his attention occasionally wanes. The Orioles had the bases loaded with two outs in the first when Jeffrey Hammonds bounced a grounder to shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who flipped to Alomar for the third out of the inning. But Alomar turned and fired the ball to first baseman John Olerud for the "fourth out."
In the dugout: Before the game, Orioles manager Phil Regan told Sid Fernandez that he was being moved to the bullpen. However,that change probably won't take affect until today or tomorrow, because Fernandez threw 3 2/3 innings in Thursday's game. Fernandez likely will be used as the No. 12 pitcher on the 12-man staff, throwing when the Orioles are way ahead or way behind.
In the clubhouse: Fernandez talked with his family about the possibility of retiring. "They weren't too happy about it, but it's my decision," he said. "They'll back whatever I do, but it's my decision. I've got to live with it."
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: SkyDome, Toronto
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Jamie Moyer (2-3, 4.58) vs. Blue Jays' Al Leiter (5-2, 2.97)