Comeback becomes comedown


At the end of a long night of piercing emotions, a night of the highest highs and lowest lows and monstrous rallies and roars of the crowd, there was Doug Jones sitting in his chair in the silence of the Orioles' clubhouse.

ZTC A noisy night reduced to stillness as midnight approached at Camden Yards.

"I've had better nights," the Orioles' closer said, exhaling a long sigh.

For the Orioles, it was a night almost remarkable enough to make them believe that maybe, just maybe, they are starting something big here, something that will resonate at the top of the AL East standings come September.

A night almost remarkable enough.

Sweeping four games from the White Sox last weekend was nothing compared to what the Orioles pulled off in the first eight innings against the Royals in the first game of the second half of the season.

This was the Great Escape, nothing less than that, leaving the Orioles within a whiff of being just five games behind the %J first-place Red Sox in the AL East.

A great win in the making. Probably the best of the season.

And then they gave it back.

The highest high followed by the lowest low.

"One of those nights for me," Jones said. "Picked a bad time for it."

For those scoring at home, here is how the night went: The Orioles fell six runs down in the top of the first, rallied to go two runs up, then lost by one when the Royals scored twice off Jones in the ninth.

The good news is what was in evidence throughout much of the night: Something has happened to the lifeless Orioles who moped through most of the first half of the season collecting paychecks and losses, looking doughy and uninspired.

Suddenly about as lifeless as Robin Williams off on one of his scats. About as lifeless as Hideo Nomo's forkball.

When they fell six runs down in the first last night, they began piecing together a rally almost immediately, as if they knew all along that they had the stuff to come back and win. Sure enough, they had the lead by the bottom of the fifth inning, when sore-kneed Harold Baines scored the go-ahead run by clattering all the way from first base to home on a double.

"I'm very happy with the way we battled," Orioles manager Phil Regan said.

On the out-of-town scoreboard in right field, the Red Sox fell eight down to the Rangers in the fifth inning, rallied to within a run of the lead, then lost.

Sometimes it almost seemed the Orioles were playing both the Royals and Red Sox. The Red Sox in their hearts and minds. The Royals on the field at Camden Yards.

The Orioles were on the verge of a sweep. Then Jones entered the game in the ninth.

After a slow start he had been perfect lately, recording 12 straight saves without blowing one. In other words, he was due.

Bad timing.

Gary Gaetti, leading off the ninth, battled Jones through a 12-pitch at-bat and finally homered to right field to tie the score.

"He hit a fastball," Jones said. "I threw him everything I had. It's just a guessing game up there. He finally got what he wanted, where he wanted."

The Royals' Tom Goodwin then reached base when a ground ball went underneath second baseman Manny Alexander's glove. "I should have had it," Alexander said.

Goodwin came around to score when Wally Joyner put a double into the right-field corner. He just beat Alexander's relay throw home.

"Doesn't feel real good," Jones said. "We played a heck of a game."

That, they did. The ninth inning offset what seemed like a dozen star turns for the Orioles.

Arthur Rhodes bailed out Mike Mussina by pitching the best game of his life in his first relief appearance. Mussina was gone with two outs in the first, the earliest exit of his career, having allowed six runs. Rhodes, the left-hander of eternally failed promise, was brilliant. Seventy-one of his 106 pitches were strikes. He was ahead in the count all night. Struck out 10, walked only one, allowed one run in seven innings.

Every Oriole except Curtis Goodwin had a hit by the sixth inning. Rafael Palmeiro broke an 0-for-25 slump with a home run and a double. Cal Ripken made a spinning throw to first on a ground ball in the seventh, a play that might make the Hall of Fame reel. Alexander leaped to make the last out of the eighth.

A crowd of 43,865, feeling lucky, did a lot of dancing.

But then came the ninth.

The loss would have been easier to take, of course, had the Orioles just gone ahead and lost big, as it appeared they would do when Mussina was knocked out so early. That's the kind of game you just throw out, dismiss as a fluke.

But then came the Great Escape, the most memorable game of the season at Camden Yards, a chance to make up more ground on the Red Sox.

Coming so close made the loss that much harder to accept in the Orioles' clubhouse.

"A very heartbreaking loss," Rhodes said.

Such a great night for a home team. But in the end, just silence.

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