ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Orioles won their 11th consecutive game last night. For a reward, they were officially removed from postseason consideration.
Two months ago, their dramatic 5-4 win over the Anaheim Angels would've been reason for celebration as a possible turnaround. Instead, pinch hitter Derrick May's two-run homer off Angels closer Troy Percival only extended the Orioles' longest win streak since July 12-25, 1987.
The win included three more hits from third baseman Cal Ripken, who closed within 10 of 3,000, and the first major-league win for rookie Gabe Molina, a significant moment for a journeyman who began the season in Monterrey, Mexico.
The 72-76 Orioles are within four games of .500 for the first time since April 16 when they were 3-7. The Orioles are 36-25 since the All-Star break and have lost only a game in the standings to the New York Yankees in that span.
Yet for all their recent good work -- the Orioles haven't lost since Sept. 6 -- the inevitable found them as they watched early NFL games. When the wild-card-leading Boston Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers, 7-3, an "x" was placed beside them in the standings.
The win also came too late for Orioles starting pitcher Mike Mussina. Forced from the game during a four-run sixth inning, Mussina couldn't hold a three-run lead. His punishment was elimination from a possible 20-win season.
Benefiting from facing a nowhere team's prospects, the Orioles broke on top, this time by converting a pair of one-out walks in the third inning for runs against right-hander Mike Fyhrie, still winless after 14 major-league appearances.
Left fielder Brady Anderson scored Jerry Hairston on a double to the center-field wall. Mike Bordick picked up a sacrifice fly when Charles Johnson used his ponderous speed to successfully challenge Angels right fielder Garret Anderson.
The Orioles bumped the lead to 3-0 in the fourth when Albert Belle singled, moved to second on Ripken's opposite-field hit and scored on Hairston's two-out single to right field.
Mussina had won in his return from the disabled list Sept. 14 in a surprisingly strong five-inning appearance against the Oakland Athletics.
But the reality of Mussina's recovery from a bruised shoulder suffered on Aug. 22 caught up to him during a four-run sixth inning in which the 16-game winner gave an excellent Rocky Coppinger impersonation.
Pitches that were thread neatly low in the strike zone before became flat and high. Consecutive doubles to right field by Jim Edmonds and Mo Vaughn ruined Mussina's shutout. Belle made a leaping catch at the 365-foot marker to rob Tim Salmon of another extra-base hit.
"I'm not so sure Moose was popping the ball as well as last time but he definitely had breaking stuff," said manager Ray Miller. "I don't know if he got a couple pitches up but they jumped right on them. They've got a very volatile lineup. Moose was on top of his game. I wish he could have won it. But we won it and a lot of people contributed."
Miller stirred his bullpen hurriedly, warming left-hander B. J. Ryan and Al Reyes. But the Angels kept coming as Troy Glaus lined a single to score Vaughn and Garret Anderson crashed a first-pitch single for the inning's fourth hit.
Miller motioned for Reyes, and Mussina was left with 5 1/3 innings. His chance for the win evaporated when, with two outs, Miller was forced to stay with Reyes against left-handed pinch hitter Jeff Huson. Huson responded with a two-run double that turned a 3-2 lead into a 4-3 deficit.
Mussina entered last night with identical 67-33 career records at home and on the road. Despite missing five starts this year, he stood in a fourth-place tie for victories within the league. A shot at 20 wins would have represented a reward for enduring an ineffective bullpen, some questionable midseason managing and a rash of poor offensive support in May and June.
"That really wasn't very realistic. To win four straight and then come back on three days' rest for the fifth one you have to be realistic. Plus to be coming off the situation I was coming off, knowing I wasn't able to go deep into games. I got set back quite a bit from it," Mussina said.
While Mussina was again frustrated, Molina (1-1) received a win in return for one out. He was the fourth of seven Orioles pitchers, a string that ended with Mike Timlin's 24th save.
"A lot of people were involved in this. The bullpen picked me up by everyone doing their jobs. As a result, I got the win," said Molina, presented a bottle of champagne by Timlin afterward.
Ripken, meanwhile, continued his careening rush at history. On Saturday, his seven-game hit streak perished and his countdown held at 13 hits. But last night Ripken needed only six innings to cement this season's 11th game of three hits or better.
Ripken's effort began with the second-inning single to center field followed by a line drive to right. In the sixth inning, Ripken one-hopped a third single past diving shortstop Gary DiSarcina. The lumbering Ripken narrowly missed a fourth hit in the eighth inning when DiSarcina backhanded his grounder and threw him out by a step.
The Orioles stayed alive when Jeff Conine followed Ripken's groundout with a two-out single. Angels interim manager Joe Maddon then summoned his closer to replace left-hander Mike Holtz. Miller reached for May to pinch hit for Eugene Kingsale. The combination proved combustible on Percival's first pitch when the veteran nomad cranked a shot into the right-field bleachers.
Too late for Mussina. Too late for this season.