MILWAUKEE -- The Orioles are transforming in the final weeks of the season, as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. They are hitting now, pitching well, playing superb defense. Beautiful.
Too bad their homely stage lasted more than four months. Hours before they pummeled the Milwaukee Brewers, 9-3, last night, hitting four homers, the Orioles were officially eliminated from the AL wild-card race.
Not that this is a surprise. The Orioles have been playing for 1996 for weeks now, and playing with a renewed vigor. A win today would be their fifth straight, which would constitute their longest winning streak in more than two years.
"We just want to prove what this team is capable of," said catcher Chris Hoiles. "Right now, we're doing everything right. We're getting good pitching, getting the big hits. Guys are doing what they've been capable of doing the whole season."
The Orioles have to win their last six games to finish with a .500 record. But manager Phil Regan acknowledged after the game he has thought of that possibility.
"You really want to get to 70 wins," he said. "But it's not impossible to get to .500 [72 wins]. We're playing pretty well right now. I'll say that."
Rookie Jimmy Haynes picked up his second major-league victory, pitching 7 2/3 innings, as the Orioles beat an old nemesis. Milwaukee right-hander Ricky Bones pitched a shutout in the Orioles' home opener in May, and afterward Regan accused him of scuffing the ball. Since then, Bones has rarely shown the same kind of dominance.
But the Orioles have, on many occasions, swung the bats as if the opposing pitcher were using an illegal substance. They have ranked among the worst teams in batting average and hitting with runners in scoring position.
In recent days, however, the Orioles have feasted against the thin pitching of the Detroit Tigers and Brewers. They scored eight runs in one inning Thursday, a season high. They had 16 hits that day, 13 runs. On Friday, they scored 10 runs on 14 hits, with four homers. Harold Baines hit No. 300, Rafael Palmeiro hit his 38th of the year, a career high. These guys are really having fun right now, Regan said afterward, and the fun continued against Bones.
Using any kind of measure -- power, average, RBIs -- Cal Ripken is out of his slump. Three hits Thursday, five RBIs Friday, and with Bobby Bonilla on first in the second inning last night, Ripken drove a double into left-center for a 1-0 lead. Ripken, who scored on a single by Hoiles, finished the night 3-for-4 with three RBIs, including his 17th home run.
The Orioles kept the heat on in the fourth inning. Baines singled leading off, and Hoiles homered to center, his 19th of the year.
(There was a moment of confusion. The ball bounced back onto the field, and center fielder Duane Singleton picked it up and threw it into the infield, as if the ball were still in play. First base umpire Durwood Merrill had signaled safe with his hands -- indicating the ball was alive -- but the other umpires signaled a home run. Brewers manager Phil Garner came out to argue, but only halfheartedly.)
Jeff Huson batted next, the unlikeliest member of the lineup to hit a homer. It had been more than three years since his last in the big leagues, but he pulled a drive over the fence in right-center.
Brady Anderson walked with two outs, then Palmeiro blasted his 39th of the year giving the Orioles a 7-0 lead.
On Friday night, after Palmeiro hit his 38th, somebody in the press box mentioned to assistant general manager Frank Robinson that Palmeiro was getting closer to his team record of 49, set in 1966. "He'll never catch me," Robinson said, breaking up the press box.
With just six games remaining in the season, Robinson is right. But Palmeiro is putting together an incredible season; he could finish with 40 or more homers, and 110 RBIs (he has 104), in a 144-game season.
"Raffy is really hitting right now," Regan said. "Everybody is really hitting right now."
The beneficiary of this run support was rookie Jimmy Haynes, who could begin 1996 in the Orioles' rotation.
Haynes gave up three hits over 7 2/3 innings and struck out five but had control trouble. He walked the bases loaded in the fourth, then allowed a two-run single to Mike Matheny with two outs.
When he walked No. 9 batter, Mark Lorretta, hitting .148, to lead off the fifth, Regan went to the mound to tell him to calm down, stop aiming the ball.
Haynes fell behind the next hitter 3-0, and the bullpen went to work. But he got out of the inning with a strikeout-caught stealing double play, and cruised until Jesse Orosco relieved him with two outs in the eighth.
"I let my emotions get to me today," Haynes said. "That inning I walked three guys, I started to get upset with myself."
It has come to this. An Oriole, apologizing, after a six-run victory.
Opponent: Milwaukee Brewers
Site: County Stadium, Milwaukee
Time: 2:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Rick Krivda (2-6, 4.15) vs. Brewers' Steve Sparks (8-10, 4.55)