ARLINGTON, Texas -- Before this season began, there were great expectations for the Orioles. An AL East title. Maybe a league title. Perhaps a world championship.
After a slow start, they still have a ways to go before becoming serious contenders. But they're taking baby steps in the right direction: In beating Texas, 4-2, last night, the Orioles reached HTC the .500 mark -- 37 wins, 37 losses -- for the first time this season. They've won 18 of their past 27 games, and stand four games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East, having overtaken Detroit for second place.
Orioles right-hander Mike Mussina (10-5), rebounding from the shortest outing of his career last week, allowed just four hits over 7 2/3 innings and joined Seattle's Randy Johnson and Kansas City's Kevin Appier as the only pitchers in the AL to win 10 games this season.
Doug Jones pitched through a hairy ninth inning to pick up his 17th save. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro hit his third homer in as many days and Brady Anderson had an RBI and scored a run for the Orioles, who have won their past eight road games.
"This," said Orioles manager Phil Regan, "was a big step for us."
Mussina said: "It's big for us, because finally we get to .500. We're getting roster moves all the time, and we still seem to find a way -- which we weren't close to doing back in May."
No. Back in May, and into June, the Orioles appeared to be in a state of disarray. Inconsistent hitting, horrible relief pitching. Then they lost two starting pitchers, Ben McDonald and Kevin Brown, to injury.
Now, Mussina agreed, the team is progressing, its pitching locking in; in 22 innings against Texas, the Orioles surrendered just 10 hits.
"There has to be momentum," said Mussina. "We're playing so much better than we were before."
A strong game by Mussina always helps. He lasted only two-thirds of an inning in his last start against Kansas City, the shortest outing of his career. Pitching coach Mike Flanagan said that some good pitchers fall into a pattern of having three or four good starts in a row, and then one lousy start. "So maybe," Flanagan said, "we'll have three or four good ones now."
Mussina was in complete command last night. Will Clark walked and Ivan Rodriguez singled with two outs in the first inning, but Mussina got out of that jam by retiring Rusty Greer on a grounder to second baseman Manny Alexander.
Mussina retired the next 15 hitters, before walking Clark to open the seventh inning. (Incredibly, the Orioles' pitching staff had allowed just one hit over 14 innings, having held the Rangers hitless from the sixth inning through the 13th in Monday night's victory.)
By then, the Orioles held a 4-0 lead, built through a series of one-run innings. Anderson doubled and scored on a fly ball by Palmeiro in the first inning. Curtis Goodwin tripled and scored on Anderson's single in the third. Harold Baines blasted a bases-empty homer in the fourth, deep into the right-field stands, a monstrous, 418-foot homer, Baines' 11th of the season.
On Monday, Palmeiro had homered in the 13th inning, and before Palmeiro arrived at the park yesterday, somebody pasted a headline from one of the Dallas-area papers over his locker: Palmeiro homer (upper) decks Texas, 3-2.
Palmeiro did it again in the sixth inning last night, with two outs. He pulled an inside pitch down the right-field line. His contact, at the moment of impact, was so sharp that the crowd of 31,837 collectively oooohed. The ball carried into the stands, Palmeiro's 19th homer of the year. Palmeiro has homered in each of his last three games, the second time he's accomplished that feat this year (the first time from May 5-7).
The Rangers clawed back into the game, after Clark walked to open the seventh. Rodriguez singled, and Greer pulled a grounder into the first base hole. Palmeiro gloved the bouncer and threw to second for the force on Rodriguez, and Ripken attempted to return the ball back to first -- Mussina was covering -- for a double play.
But Ripken's throw tailed away and skipped into the Rangers' dugout, his seventh error of the year, allowing Clark to score. Mickey Tettleton singled, Greer moving to third, and Flanagan went to the mound for a state-of-the-Orioles discussion with Mussina.
Flanagan told him to get a ground ball, and sure enough, Mike Pagliarulo hit a chopper at Ripken, who stepped on second and threw to first to end the inning.
The Rangers scored again in the eighth, and Jones came on for the ninth to protect the two-run lead. Rodriguez doubled, and after Greer flied out, Tettleton walked and was replaced by pinch runner Jack Voigt. A grounder advanced Voigt to second, and then the massive figure of slugger Juan Gonzalez emerged from the dugout to pinch-hit.
No heroics, though. Gonzalez grounded out to third, and the Orioles were a .500 team, officially.
HITS AND MISSES
On the field: When Texas first baseman Will Clark singled with two outs in the first inning, he ended an 0-for-25 streak for the Rangers' hitters. The Orioles held the Rangers hitless Monday night after Rusty Greer's homer leading off the sixth inning, through the 13th and final inning.
In the dugout: Kevin Bass started in right field last night, after Jeffrey Hammonds went on the disabled list, and Orioles manager Phil Regan indicated that Bass would play regularly in Hammonds' absence. Mark Smith, called up from Triple-A Rochester, will fill in occasionally.
In the clubhouse: "I have no clue why I am here." -- Smith, after arriving at the Orioles clubhouse last night. Smith didn't know that Hammonds had been placed on the disabled list.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: The Metrodome, Minneapolis
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Ben McDonald (2-5, 4.14) vs. Twins' Brad Radke (6-7, 6.15)