For more than two weeks, the Orioles delivered a performance fit for a world champion, but no one expected it to last forever.
The Oakland Athletics, who still have something tangible at stake in the waning weeks of the season, jetted in for yesterday's rain-makeup doubleheader and promptly put an end to the Orioles' 13-game winning streak with a 9-6 victory in the first game before a sparse crowd at Camden Yards.
The Orioles needed a sweep to set a franchise record with 15 consecutive wins but had to settle for a 12-4 victory in the nightcap, which featured four doubles by Albert Belle and an unsteady -- but still improved -- 4 2/3-inning performance by rookie Matt Riley in his second major-league start.
"We've played very well up to this point," said manager Ray Miller. "Nothing like getting in at 5 a.m. in the middle of a journey to Boston, but that's what you have to do."
That's about what the A's had to do, too. They had to fly in from Oakland on the way to a potentially pivotal series in Texas to make up the two rainouts that were precipitated by Hurricane Floyd last week.
Not exactly optimum logistics for a team that still is alive in the American League West race and the wild-card derby, but it couldn't be helped.
The only other alternative was a doubleheader on the Monday after the final day of the regular season, a scenario that would have put the A's in a very vulnerable competitive situation in the postseason if they managed to emerge with a playoff berth.
Instead, they flew coast-to-coast after a disheartening loss Wednesday to the Minnesota Twins and had enough energy left to launch four home runs and bring an end to the second-longest winning streak in Orioles history.
Right-hander Sidney Ponson gave up three of them, beginning with a damaging three-run shot by catcher Mike Macfarlane in the second inning. He also allowed bases-empty homers to Matt Stairs and Ben Grieve in the fifth but got off the hook when the Orioles rallied from a three-run deficit to tie the game.
Reliever Gabe Molina (1-2) was charged with the loss after allowing a leadoff homer to Miguel Tejada in the eighth and surrendering two other runs to seal the club's first defeat since a 7-6 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 6.
"There's not much to talk about," Miller said. "We threw too many pitches down the middle. Sidney had good stuff, but he left too many pitches up and over the middle of the plate. Molina did the same thing. The one thing those guys can do is hit the ball out of the ballpark."
True enough. The A's arrived in Baltimore ranked 13th in the American League with a .258 combined batting average but with 221 home runs stood second only to the Seattle Mariners. They left town with 227 after Randy Velarde and Stairs went deep in the nightcap.
The Orioles look even better on paper. They came out of the 13-game streak ranked among the top four teams in the American League in batting average (fourth), home runs (fourth), team ERA (fourth) and team defense (first), but for most of the season that has not been reflected in the club's performance.
During the winning streak, however, the Orioles batted .295 as a team and overwhelmed their opponents by a combined score of 78-37. The pitching staff was just as strong, combining for a 2.75 ERA.
Miller had the choice of starting either Ponson or Riley in the first game of the twin bill. He chose Ponson, hoping to preserve his bullpen in case of a short outing by Riley, who had failed to get out of the third inning in his major-league debut on Sept. 9.
"I like to have the unknown on the other end," Miller explained before the game. "They're doing it the other way, so I guess there are two ways to look at it."
Both teams got half a loaf -- the unexpected half. The A's went with rookie starter Brett Laxton in the first game and got away with it, though he lasted only 4 2/3 innings and gave up six runs (three earned).
Riley outlasted 15-game winner Omar Olivares in the nightcap before giving way to fellow left-hander Doug Johns, who got the victory in his first appearance since being sidelined last week with what club officials have described as a sleeping disorder.
Riley struggled again with his control, walking seven and throwing 55 strikes in a 112-pitch performance.
He would have been eligible for the victory if he had lasted one more out, but Miller did not want to push him any farther.
"Of course, you want to get your first win out of the way," Riley said, "but I was way past my pitch count. Ray made the decision that he thought he should make."
Ponson, who reached 200 innings for the first time in his professional career, struck out eight batters over 4 2/3 innings in the first game, but the heavy workload may be taking a toll on his valuable arm.
"He's pitched over 200 innings, so maybe it's that time of year. I don't know," said Miller. "He's going to give up home runs until he's a little more polished. His breaking ball hasn't been as sharp the last couple of times, and he's been relying pretty much on the fastball/changeup. But that's a club that you can't really just pound, because they'll get you."
Reliever B. J. Ryan pitched impressively for 2 1/3 innings, striking out four, before giving way to Molina and eventually Mike Fetters. The four pitchers in the opener combined for a season-high 15 strikeouts.
Riley looked much more composed than he did in his debut two weeks ago, working out of a jam in the second inning before the A's broke through for two runs in the top of the third on Velarde's 16th homer of the year.
The Orioles, who scored first on an RBI single by reserve catcher Mike Figga in the second, tied the game in the bottom of the third on Ryan Minor's second run-scoring hit of the doubleheader.
They blew the game open in the fourth on a two-run double by Belle and a three-run homer by Derrick May to carry some momentum into the four-game series against the Boston Red Sox that opens tonight at Fenway Park.
Belle went on to double four times in a game for the second time in less than a month. On Aug. 29, he became only the third player in Orioles history to get four doubles in a game and became the first major-league player ever to do it twice in the same league.
Miller drew a hail of boos when he lifted Riley with a three-run lead in the fifth inning, but the A's had scored twice and had the tying run at the plate in the person of power-hitting outfielder Ben Grieve.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (16-7, 3.74) vs. Red Sox's Bret Saberhagen (10-5, 3.11) Pub Date: 9/24/99