ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Orioles extended a September ritual last night, trading on a four-run third inning and the contributions of several younger players for a 4-2 win over the AL West-leading Texas Rangers and another notch on what has grown to a 12-game winning streak.
The win lifted the Orioles to 73-76, their closest approach to .500 since a 3-6 start. They also pulled within three games of the third-place Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East and are 37-25 since the All-Star break. Instead of a monthlong forced march, the Orioles continue to enjoy offense from third baseman Cal Ripken and right fielder Albert Belle, well-timed hitting and superior starting pitching.
Undefeated since Sept. 6 and 15-3 in September, the Orioles' streak is the third-longest in club history, two shy of the all-time record and longest since a 13-game rush from May 31-June 14, 1978.
Belle's two-run single in the third inning completed the Orioles' only rally. Jason Johnson pitched six efficient innings for his second consecutive quality start. Mike Timlin pitched a scoreless ninth inning for his fourth save in as many games. The Orioles managed two base runners after the third inning but a tag-team bullpen controlled the game's most powerful lineup for three innings.
The Oriole jayvees again acquitted themselves well. Besides Johnson and reliever Gabe Molina, rookies Jerry Hairston, Mike Figga and Eugene Kingsale figured prominently in the win. Hairston and Figga ignited the four-run third inning with leadoff singles. Kingsale twice robbed Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez, once on a sprint to the right-center-field wall that caused Rodriguez to perform a double-take in disbelief. Miller remarked that the often nervous Figga caught his most professional game of his 21 starts.
"I'm just trying to leave a good impression in their minds," said Figga, whose single in the third came after he botched a bunt attempt. "I want them to think they don't need to go get another catcher, that I can play here."
With nothing tangible to play for, it was the Orioles who gave the stronger performance as the Rangers continued to flounder against teams with losing records.
"It's hard to play with the same intensity every night," said Rangers designated hitter Rafael Palmeiro. "For 162 games you have to try to stay focused. If we're not focused, or if we're lax, we need to get back into it."
The 89-62 Rangers were shut down by Johnson's start and competent work from Al Reyes, Molina, Scott Kamieniecki and Timlin.
Johnson also gave an unforced appearance. His mistakes were four walks, an 0-2 pitch that Palmeiro tattooed for a double and a second-inning home run by Lee Stevens. His positives were back-to-back strikeouts of Roberto Kelly and Juan Gonzalez in the sixth inning and an unwillingness to give in to the league's most powerful lineup.
Johnson (7-7) was making his first start since Sept. 8 when he left a five-inning shutout with a ruptured blister. Johnson didn't gain his second win this season until his 10th start. Last night he won his fourth consecutive decision in a span of six starts.
"It's important to me to end the season strong. If we ever get to the playoffs down the road I want to know I can be strong in August and September," said Johnson. "I felt strong my last two starts and think I would have had a chance for a [first-ever] complete game but my finger's acting up."
Now enjoying a .340 average, Ripken reached base in the second inning on a line drive that second baseman Mark McLemore dove after but only deflected into foul territory. Ripken swerved around first and ended up with a 125-foot double, his 45th extra-base hit in his 329th at-bat. A year ago Ripken managed only 42 extra-base hits in 601 at-bats after picking up 47 in 615 at-bats in 1997.
Ripken's march to 3,000 hits has picked up enough momentum for Miller to safely discuss resting him for part of tomorrow's home doubleheader against Oakland or a four-game series in Boston.
Miller suggested that Ripken will play both ends of the doubleheader if his back allows.
"It's basically a how-you-feel situation," said Miller. "I told him how I feel about everything. As far as being in a position to do what and when, I'm just going to wait and see where it's at."
Though Ripken, 39, didn't factor in last night's scoring, the Orioles have surged around him. Last week's American League leader in hitting, Ripken has hit safely in nine of his last 10 games. The rigid, awkward-looking closed stance he brought into the season has been rejected in favor of a flexed, more athletic look. Hands that once dragged through the strike zone now rip fastballs delivered below his fists.
Last night's push stopped at 2,991 after he popped to third, lined to shortstop and grounded out in the eighth inning.
"He's done some remarkable things and he's been on a tear. He didn't look quite as quick tonight but he's been whistling that bat," Miller said. "I don't think all the plane flights are agreeing with him right now as we're touring the nation."
Ripken looked stiff in Anaheim on Saturday and appeared to labor last night. Still, he convinced Miller he was fine when the manager approached following his second and third at-bats.
The Orioles did their real damage in the third inning when they bunched five singles among the first six hitters for four runs.
After Hairston and Figga began the rally with consecutive hits from the bottom of the order, Brady Anderson scored Hairston with the inning's third straight hit.
In the inning's most significant at-bat, Mike Bordick popped a bunt toward the third base line. Rangers starter and former Miller pupil Esteban Loaiza dove for the pop-up but only reached it with the end of his glove, allowing Bordick a single to load the bases. B. J. Surhoff then bumped the lead to 2-0 with a right-side grounder that scored Figga for his 106th RBI. On cue, Belle reclaimed the team RBI lead by scoring Anderson and Bordick with a single.
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas
Time: 8: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Scott Erickson (14-11, 4.76) vs. Rangers' Rick Helling (13-9, 4.71)