MINNEAPOLIS -- There comes a moment in every comeback when the rebounding team senses it is going to win. The Orioles felt that way during the ninth inning last night, as they attempted to come back from three runs down against the Minnesota Twins.
With the bases full, they had the tying run at second with nobody out. But reliever Dave Stevens gathered himself and finished off the Orioles, 5-3, for the Twins' fifth win in eight games against the Orioles this year.
Although Rafael Palmeiro hit his fourth homer in four games, his 20th of the year, the Orioles' winning streak was stopped at four games, and the Orioles fell to five games behind Boston in the AL East.
They had their shot, though, in the ninth. A great opportunity.
"Well," said Orioles manager Phil Regan, "we had a chance. What the heck. . . . We just couldn't get the big hit when we needed it."
The Orioles were down 5-2 when the inning started. Starter Ben McDonald (2-6) was long gone, having allowed five runs in 2 2/3 innings, and for seven innings, Twins right-hander Brad Radke (7-7) lorded over the Metrodome, the 22-year-old rookie winning his fourth straight game. The Orioles had just four hits, Palmeiro's homer coming with nobody on base in the third inning.
Two weeks ago, Rick Aguilera would've started the ninth for the Twins. Probably cut down the Orioles 1-2-3, picked up another easy save. But these are the Fire Sale Twins, and Aguilera is now pitching for the Red Sox.
So Pat Mahomes was on the mound for Twins when the ninth inning started, and he walked Cal Ripken on six pitches. Minnesota manager Tom Kelly seemed to sprint to the mound to replace Mahomes; walking a leadoff hitter with a three-run lead is not the usual prescription for victory.
Kelly called on left-hander Mark Guthrie to pitch to the left-handed-hitting Harold Baines. But Regan called back Baines, who had 7,677 career at-bats, and inserted right-handed-hitting Mark Smith, who just happened to be making his major-league debut.
The way Regan figured it, Baines had rarely hit against lefties this year, and Smith was batting .370 against left-handers at Triple-A Rochester. Either way, Smith drew a walk on four pitches; Guthrie never even gave Smith a chance to swing the bat.
"They must've read the reports [from Rochester]," Regan joked.
Kelly, a stoic anyway, marched to the mound looking very serious and called for the right-handed Stevens, the heir apparent -- temporarily, anyway -- to Aguilera. Kevin Bass singled, loading the bases, and the left-handed-hitting Jeff Huson emerged from the Orioles dugout to bat for Jeff Manto. (At this point, one half-expected a pawn or a rook to grab a bat.)
Stevens threw two quick strikes, and Huson spread his stance a little more and choked up a little more and started battling. He fouled off a fastball, then took a ball just off the plate. Fouled off three more. Took another ball.
Fouled off another. Took ball three. And then, on the 11th pitch of the at-bat, Huson walked, forcing home Ripken and drawing the Orioles to within two runs.
"I really thought at that moment," Regan said, "that we had a chance to win the ballgame."
Huson said: "I knew we were still in the ballgame. We had the bases loaded, down by two, nobody out. We had our chance."
Leo Gomez batted for Greg Zaun, and after an ugly swing on a 1-1 pitch, he struck out. Curtis Goodwin, batting next, was 4-for-6 in his very short career with the bases loaded, but he struck out as well, giving him one hit in his last 14 at-bats.
With two outs, Brady Anderson hit a hard smash up the middle -- right at Stevens, who gloved the ball before Anderson was a step out of the box. Stevens threw to first to end the game.
"If the ball Brady hits goes through," Regan said, "we tie the ballgame."
His counterpart Kelly said: "Those might've been some of the best pitches he's ever thrown here in Minnesota."
The Orioles rolled into the Twin Cities having won four straight. Eighteen of their last 27. Contenders for the AL East title, their vigor renewed after having beaten the evil Rangers and all those ex-Orioles.
And despite all that momentum, they couldn't find a way to beat the Twins -- again. The Twins have 25 victories in 75 games this year (.333), yet they're playing .625 ball against the Orioles.
The Twins took two of three games from the Orioles at Camden Yards two weeks ago. After Minnesota's second victory in that series, Regan punctuated his post-game news conference by flinging his tie-clip microphone a good 10 feet. Palmeiro talked about how the Orioles should've swept the three games, how Twins pitcher Mike Trombley beat them with -- in so many words -- garbage.
Lose two games to the Cleveland Indians, or to the California Angels, and you tip your cap. Lose two games to the Minnesota Twins, and you rant and rave. The Twins had the worst record in baseball, after all, even before they traded closer Aguilera to Boston and No. 2 starter Scott Erickson to the Orioles.
A bad team. But very good against the Orioles, and they jumped all over McDonald, who was making his second start since being activated off the disabled list last Friday.
"It looked like to me he got the ball up," Regan said.
Which helped to down the Orioles.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: The Metrodome, Minneapolis
Time: 1:15 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (6-6, 5.45) vs. Twins' Frankie Rodriguez (0-3, 10.07)
Rafael Palmeiro has homered in the Orioles' past four games:
Date Pitcher .. Inn. .. Final
7/19 Radke . .. 3 .. .. Twins, 5-3
7/18 Pavlik ... 6 .. .. O's, 4-2
7/17 Cook .. . 13 .. .. O's, 3-2
7/16 Bunch . .. 4 .. .. O's, 3-2